Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Design Review of Dark Ascension—Black

White | Blue | Black | Red | Green | Other

Unlike Sanctuary Cat, Black Cat is on theme …at least as much as witches, superstition and Halloween are. As a variant of Ravenous Rats it's fairly neat. Trading immediate effect for an upgrade to random discard. I can say more than a few players avoided killing my Black Cats at the Prerelease for fear of losing the best card in their hand. That it's a zombie—while unnecessary for flavor—sure is nice when you've got a Gravecrawler or Diregraf Captain. Or Ghoulcaller's Chant or Ghoulraiser. Oh, and it's a nice sacrifice target to enable morbid. That's a lot of bad luck for your opponent.

Chosen of Markov is one of my favorite cards in the set and not because of the design, which is solid. A Gray Ogre that doubles in size? Playable. A human that becomes a vampire with vampiric approval? Flavorful. A cute girl that becomes a proud seductress? Priceless.

Curse of Misfortunes is the epitome of build-around-me cards. It does nothing on its own, but enables a couple other curses (preferably a strong one like Curse of Death's Hold or another build-around in Curse of Thirst). Unfortunate to open in Sealed, but potentially awesome in Draft and at least amusing in Constructed, my only design concern is whether we needed both this and Bitterheart Witch, particularly at the same cost. Five sure is a busy mana cost for the curse player.

Deadly Allure is easily underestimated. Was it worth bleeding the solo-Lure effect into black? Pretty much, yeah.

Hey, Brainspoil, Gloomlance, Weed Strangle, and Spread the Sickness, meet your new sister, Death's Caress. One could argue that these five-mana cards with bonuses prove that you could print just "Destroy target creature" at 2BB, but you may also notice a similarity with the recent strain of land destruction spells. It might only be okay to offer this effect as part of a more expensive package. I expect the simple kill spell will happen eventually, but I'm not confident it will be remotely soon.

Falkenrath Aristocrat is cool. It would have been neat to see flying and haste with the standard slith trigger, but "sacrifice a human" is cool and it offers some important variety. Likewise for Falkenrath Torturer. Almost. Not sure why he requires sacrifice to fly.

I hate the last ability on Fiend of the Shadows. Where it felt central to the last pair of cards, it feels entirely tacked on here. We've already covered the sacrifice shtick and Fiend already has an identity; grafting them together just feels sloppy. Maybe it was needed for balance and preferable to tweaking the cost or size knobs, but it really ruins the card for me.

Farbog Boneflinger is an interesting departure from the well-ingrained line of Nekrataal descendants. Why didn't they just print Keening Banshee? It totally fits the theme! Probably they needed that slot for vampires. Oh and Banshee's pretty strong, they likely needed the power points for vampires too. Pedigree and alternatives aside, Boneflinger seems fine.

Geralf's Messenger is strong. I've played against it and I can say its message is loud and clear: "Die, human!" While it plays more like Murderous Redcap than Kitchen Finks, it's clearly designed to parallel Finks and I'm impressed how well it does.

Gravecrawler alongside Goblin Guide show just how much better cheap creatures can be than they have been historically. That is to say, much, much better. From a flavor perspective, it's curious that you have to have a zombie in play to recast him, but we can overlook that and focus on how he keeps coming back. Very cool. Should "can't block" have been "ETB tapped?" Whatever.

Gravepurge has been reconcepted so many times. Footbottom Feast, Bone Harvest, Corpse Parade. Okay, I made that last one up. Point is, this is unusual for noncreatures (Grizzly Bears and Stone Giant have apparently been reconcepted 7 and 11 times, respectively). What surprises me about it is there's less purpose in the spell case. There's no creature type to update, no place-name to add planar significance. I mean, "Bone Harvest" seems to fit Gothic Horror pretty damn well. So why the name change? I'm not bothered, mind you, just confused.

The M13 team has been looking at alternatives to Mind Rot (like Mage's Regret, Unhinge, Blackermail or Scattermind) , partly for some variety and partly to keep another card (remind me to tell you about Slum Scavengers another time) from being unprintably good. So I'm particularly attuned to such variations and their reasonableness or lack thereof. Gruesome Discovery is perfect. Innistrad only, of course, but still. Respect.

Is it more funny that adding 50% effect to Sign in Blood adds 150% cost or that Harrowing Journey is at the perfect cost for a common of that level? We also thought about alternatives to Divination and found that "draw three" is generally too good for a common effect. At five mana and three life, however (and in a small set only), it seems about right.
EDIT: Apparently Harrowing Journey is uncommon. Oh. Good. I'm much more comfortable with it this way.

Compared to Spectral Rider, it seems odd at first that Highborn Ghoul is smaller. Shouldn't black be better at intimidate? Well, white's better at small creatures in general, and also the Rider is uncommon where the Ghoul is common. Compare it instead to Nezumi Cutthroat. Feel better? I do amit it would've been cool to see a White Knight/Black Knight pairing here, giving black a sweet zombie knight, but I can't really complain about an efficient evasive zombie.

Increasing Ambition keeps up the high expectations of the cycle. One more than Diabolic Tutor for the ability to do it twice more? Sold.

Mikaeus, the Unhallowed is a very cool card but I have a bit of a grudge against it. Its existence trumps a pretty sweet zombie pirate lord we had in the works for M13. I claim that our flavor (and maybe gameplay, in context) was better, but I can't pretend evil Mikaeus isn't a badass thing. It's kind of crazy how different they read but how similar they play, at least in terms of buffing and reanimating your team. What was really nice about Cursed Captain for M13 is that it's a pirate lord that works in zombie decks as well as pirate decks, which is a nice perk for a lord of a tiny tribe.

Ravenous Demon is my favorite use of "Sacrifice a Human" and a nice callback to Lord of the Pit (or, Liege of the Pit / Xathrid Demon if you prefer). It's a bit of a mess in retrospect, but I still look back fondly on my Volcano God design from Escape to Muraganda which was then to be the first card with "Sacrifice a Human" on it.

I like that Reap the Seagraf is good in the blue zombie deck but best in the black one the same way that Forbidden Alchemy is good in the black zombie deck but best in the blue one. As Alex points out, Reap isn't a card that will ever be reprinted since the blue-half making zombies only makes sense in the context of Innistrad. That said, I would happily put this in a blue-black zombie Commander deck (probably with Grimgrin, Corpse-Born).

I mentioned yesterday that Sightless Ghoul is the worse of the undying cards. It's important to have an obvious worst and obvious best in a given set of cards, to help people evaluate them. The fact that this worst card is still playable in most black Limited decks is an indicator of just how strong undying is. I do find it interesting that they put the worst undying card in black (unless you're counting Loyal Cathar), of all colors.

Skirsdag Flayer pounds home the human sacrifice sub-theme and offers repeated, unrestricted removal at a reasonable price on a vulnerable body. It's nice that the traitorous human cultist flavor fits so well, because it's important for gameplay that this bastard can flay himself if necessary.

We need bad cards and Spiteful Shadows fills that role. At least the art is neat. The fact that it's actually playable in certain corner cases is gravy.

Stromkirk Captain continues the multicolor tribal lord cycle and offers vampires a hugely relevant ability. Good luck eating your opponent's 3/2 first strike Bloodcrazed Neonate.

Tragic Slip is impressive. We're used to weak one-mana removal from black, but having a card that's sometimes (much) better than Dismember (at least for black decks) is no small feat. Like Chant of the Skifsang, part of the reason they can get away with such a huge number is the concept of diminishing returns. Not many creatures are bigger than 6/6 and even fewer are bigger than 9/9. That Tragic Slip can kill a Ludevic’s Abomination is pretty cute.

It's funny how Undying Evil reads a bit tame at first, but then you start to think of all the things you can save with it. As @wrongwaygoback points out, it would be pretty satisfying to recur Mulldrifter with this. Undying Evil is another card that was pushed further than I would have myself. Compare it to Regenerate; For half the mana, you'll lose any auras on your creature (as if that was a thing), but you untap your creature, make it permanently bigger and get an extra helping of its ETB (and leaves-the-battlefield) effects. Dang, son.

Vengeful Vampire is worse than Stormbound Geist, amazing.

Wakedancer reminds me of Kavu Titan. The temptation to wait for the bigger effect will often cause players to miss a lot of early effect. My only other note is about the type line. It makes a zombie, so it goes in your zombie deck, right? But it's not a zombie itself. I'm guessing the card started as a zombie but proved to be just a bit too good in testing.

Two of my friends were arguing at the Prerelease about who opened the worse set of rares. One direct comparison was between Endless Ranks of the Dead and Zombie Apocalypse. Both are clearly best only when you have a lot of zombies, but the first is unplayable if you don't while the second could still be a one-sided wrath, provided your opponent has more humans than you. Regardless, Zombie Apocalypse is dripping with flavor and makes zombie players drool. Success.

There are more black cards in both Innistrad and Dark Ascension than the other colors, but three of them are just the back-faces of nonblack cards. I'm glad Wizards' didn't go the Torment route again, and make half the set freaking black. It's really great that they focused on what horror looks like in other colors because a set full of black spirits, zombies, vampires and werewolves would have left the other colors boring as hell and certainly would have hurt Limited.


  1. I'm very uncomfortable with your comment: "A cute girl that becomes a dirty slut? Priceless."

    Especially in a hobby that has a big problem with gender equality already, I think we should avoid at all costs using gendered insults that reinforce sexism.

    For more information, I recommend reading http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/what-is-slut-shaming/ or Jessica Valenti's book The Purity Myth.

  2. Also, addressing some of your other points:

    Bone Harvest couldn't be used as is since that is a 'slowtrip'; Footbottom Feast obviously doesn't work as a name here.

    Harrowing Journey is uncommon.

  3. Hey Sam. I'm curious why you think the use of the word 'slut' implies shaming or judgment? Or that it's necessarily sexist or an insult? I heartily believe that being a slut, male or female, is a fine thing in the right context (keeping safe and drug-free with no mental illness or coercion). I think Rakish Heir is a slut too and I'm glad both cards were printed because I like sluts and don't think their existence should be hidden.

    As it happens, I had changed that phrase to "filthy tramp" before seeing your comment (or advertising the post) since it's only clear that she dresses provocatively and not that she behaves that way. (Having trouble finding a word that identifies someone who dresses sexually but sounds unambiguously positive). I'm changing it again now to "proud seductress" on the basis that perhaps your objection isn't to the noun, but to the adjective. I don't see being dirty or filthy, in a sexual context, as a bad thing and would even argue that it's meant as a compliment when used between lovers, but I can see how someone might feel otherwise.

    Good eye, regarding Bone Harvest and Harrowing Journey.

    1. I think it implies shaming, judgment, sexism and insult simply because it is overwhelmingly most commonly used in that manner, and words take on meaning in the way that they are most commonly used and heard.

      If you're looking to reclaim the word to be non-negative and non-sexist, that's good, I'm glad to hear it. Unfortunately, that can be confusing (as it was to me!) or accidentally reinforce the more common usage we are looking to eliminate, unless there is a clearly established context.

      (There's probably a lesson for Magic design buried in here somewhere, too...)

    2. The MaRo-style lesson for Magic design would probably be something like "Look, Electropotence was a terrible idea. The word "potence" means things to people, and even if you try and reclaim that word, the meaning still exists outside of your intentions."

      (But that's being overly simplistic, and misses most of the finer points of the analogy/original problem. I think it's probably best in the long run if we don't try to compare any Magic-design-conventions with the painful history of women's oppression/culture of shame, even though, regrettably, that's kind of what I just did.)

  4. By Howling Banshee, you meant Keening Banshee, right?
    The Nekrataal crowd has a little more variance than I think we often remember, as while Skinrender fit the expectation immaculately, Shriekmaw and Big Game Hunter before it did fall slightly outside the Keening/Nekrataal tradition.

    (I agree that "proud seductress" is the right call, here.)

    How often does color imbalance (in terms of numbers, not power) happen in Magic?

    I know that slowtrips have been used as block mechanics before, but is there really a lot stopping them from seeing print here or there?

    1. Yeah, I did mean Keening Banshee, thanks. Updating that now. Good call on Shriekmaw and BGH shaking things up too. I like Boneflinger better in that light.

      Curiously, I've found that sets have different numbers of each color at common more than not. Not like Torment, of course, but it's almost never 20/20/20/20/20.

      I think slow-trips are like shroud. Only slightly 'worse' than the new version, still printable in the abstract, but basically outclassed for the foreseeable future.

  5. Sets usually have the same number of commons for each color. When you run a search of a set's commons per color in Gatherer, it will show up as different, because Gatherer counts cards like Fireball as a common if it was a common in any past set, even if it isn't a common in the set that you searched for.

    1. That explains a lot (and makes my OCD much happier). Quirky old Gatherer strikes again!

  6. I agree that Chosen of Markov and Servant of Markov has one of the most fascinating transformations in the set. The art, especially the facial expressions on both sides, is amazing.

    There's a kind of fascination to the card, and it's a dark kind of fascination, but it's not about someone being degraded in society's eyes, as people would imagine from the word slut. "Proud seductress" is a good call.

  7. I don't like the "Sacrifice a Human" ability on Fiend of the Shadows, because it requires you to build a Human deck. A cool card like Fiend of Shadows should be a modular tool.

    I do like having the "regenerate to sacrifice" effect rather than just being a huge flyer that doesn't need to regenerate, because it creates a mini-game of your opponent trying to stop it and you sacrificing things to push it through defense or removal. Like you said, if it was huge, it would have to cost a ton. The opponent might not have a card in hand at that time, and also you might win with damage before you get to enjoy stealing multiple spells.

    Maybe it was a different regenerate ability to begin with, but they were looking for a few more places to stick the word "sacrifice a Human?" I think it was a mistake.

    1. The thing is, the Fiend is perfectly functional even if you never regenerate it. It doesn't require you to build around Humans to make good use of it. You can effectively act as though that text doesn't exist and still have a decent creature.

      Which raises the issue that the regeneration ability ends up being very distracting, making someone think that they HAVE to play into the Human tribal if they want to use the card at all. You can build around it that way, but you shouldn't have to. It would be weaker if that ability was simply left off, with no other changes to the card, but it wouldn't have that misleading problem.

  8. You have a good point that the Blue cards seem to be outclassing the Black cards. I really wonder why they did that.

    1. I think at some level, they must've been concerned about the power level of Delver of Secrets. As a result, they needed to push blue in Dark Ascension to make sure that Delver wasn't the only overpowering blue deck in standard, right?

    2. I don't think that's likely. Dave Humpherys's article from Monday mentioned how Delver of Secrets turned out to be much, much better than the FFL had realised.

  9. MaRo revealed in his article today that Reap the Seagraf used to be awesome. I guess Erik Lauer isn't as infallible a supergenius as I thought.