Monday, January 30, 2012

Design Review of Dark Ascension—White

White | Blue | Black | Red | Green | Other

There're too many awesome design things happening in Dark Ascension to let them pass unobserved. I'll be breaking it up by color in the standard order because I don't see a reason to do it any other way.

Archangel's Light is a powerful, in-theme life gain effect. Solid design. Does it deserve mythic? Not really. Would I rather see that than an untested card that proves to be dominant? Probably?

Bar the Door is weak but flavorful, two things every set needs.

The base effect of Break of Day isn't amazing, but historically playable. The fateful hour bonus is pretty cool, making it an interesting comparison to Safe Passage. Even so, it's one of the weaker implementations of this mechanic, which is an important thing to have.

Burden of Guilt is pretty brilliant. Mechanically it could be blue, but the flavor is very white. This is very simple, common removal and is yet another great addendum to my look at common white removal.

One-sided Rule of Law for W more? Curse of Exhaustion seems fine and feels cursey enough.

Drogskol Captain is terrifying. What, it's supposed to be? Oh. Good job?
Seriously though, this card and a single Lingering Souls gives you 10 power of flying, only one of which is targetable. On the other hand, why would you target any of the tokens over their lord? So is the hexproof meaningless? Nope: paired Drogskol Captains comprise a very serious problem. So the keyword doesn't do what it looks like it should in the innocuous case and is better than it appears in the obnoxious case. Design fail?

Drogskol Reaver deserves to be mythic. It does four simple things that synergize well. It's not hard to read or grok, but it does more than a rare should and it's very exciting for Timmy.

Elgaud Inquisitor feels pretty derivative. It's identical to Mausoleum Guard except you get one less spirit and gain 2 life (usually). I really wish it were more different. That said, I know that's much harder than it sounds and I wouldn't try to rebuild a set this good to see if this one card can be made different.

Faith's Shield follows the fateful hour shtick of finding a staple white effect and giving it a super-powered version. I'm glad they went this route because staple effects are exactly what people rely on most in dire straits.

The boosted effect on Gather the Townsfolk reads more exciting than the one on Faith's Shield (at least to a Timmy like myself) but probably isn't much better on average. Gather is interesting next to Raise the Alarm. Raise doesn't suck, and downgrading to sorcery speed for a potential 150% value increase is pretty bold. It's safe to say they pushed this as one of the better common fateful hour cards. Pretty sure it makes five humans instead of four just to match the life threshold.

Hollowhenge Spirit is the only card that removes a creature from combat without tapping or untapping it, as far as I can tell. I had to explain how the effect worked to most of my opponents. I guess this is an example where less text is more complicated.

Gavony Ironwright is a hard card to evaluate. I mean, a 1/4 for three is a fine defensive body so it's not a bad include in decks that need it, but how good is the +1/+4? +1/+1 is solid and this is better, but is it better than +2/+2 would be? When you're down to 5- life, it might be. Do you take Ironwright over Hollowhenge Spirit? I don't know. They both go into decks that want to stall the ground and win in the air. The Spirit's a bit more versatile in that you can use it to attack into a nasty blocker, but your 2/5 tokens will be doing that too, in their fateful hour.

It's good to have cards that are easy to evaluate relatively. We want players to know Lingering Souls is better than both of these and that Curse of Exhaustion isn't, because you'll cause analysis paralysis and pick-regret if you have too many similar value/function cards. By the same token, if it's too obvious how to rank every single pick, Limited choices become trivial and we reduce the impact of skill in the game. This uncommon example is less important because it'll come up much less often so I'm not worried whether the right balance was struck here, but it's much more important when looking at the commons. Fortunately, I think there has been enough differentiation among common creatures of a color since Mirrodin Besieged or so.

The Increasing Devotion cycle is certainly exciting. It's fascinating to me that they took a card that's an auto-include in Limited—five mana for five 1/1s—gave it flashback and then doubled the effect. That's a whole lot of value. Could this have been four guys for 5cc plus eight for 10cc and still playable? Here is one design concept I have very little grasp on: When do you push a card this hard?

You already know Lingering Souls is strong. What I hadn't noticed before is that the enemy color flashback cycle is uncommon while the ally cycle is common, just as it was in Innistrad (going the other way). Awesome.

What strikes me about Loyal Cathar is how much he plays like an undying creature in white. White doesn't have any cards with that keyword, but this guy's almost identical—except instead of getting better, it gets worse. Is it worth the confusion of including too so similar effects? The flavor's great, but I'm not entirely convinced.

Midnight Guard is a neat, simple common. It's not as simple as just giving it vigilance (which by the way, is free flavor for guards), but 2/3 vigilance for 2W is a bit too good for common and this has the added Johnny appeal of combinations like Presence of Gond.

Is 'Niblis' okra, tofu or twinkie? Niblis of the Mist is a simple, desirable effect that fits white's flying/attacking plan. More importantly, it gives spirits a tap-mechanic identity that I think works very nicely for them. It's big brother, er, little brother, Niblis of the Urn ups the ante, putting the Seasoned Marshal ability on a flier. Good stuff.

It's cute when a card's exact double seems so much better or worse. See Ancient Grudge and Ray of Revelation.

There's a fascinating deviation from the norm in Requiem Angel. Usually this ability would trigger off of non-token creatures to prevent getting tokens from tokens. The choice to trigger on non-Spirit creatures is vastly more flavorful, grants a liberating exception that lets token lovers play in usually off-limits ground for a while and results in a card that is good at making spirits, but not terribly good in a spirit deck—which is a good thing provided you've already got a card that is good in spirit decks, aka Drogskol Captain.

Sanctuary Cat is the first in a list of cards that has foiled plans for Magic 2013. We'd been planning to reprint Volunteer Militia from Portal block because it's fun to discover old cards you didn't know existed, the flavor is solid for a core set and it's unusual to have a common that trumps Tundra Wolves. Sanctuary Cat only spoils the last bit, but oy how it does.

I guess Séance is an enchantment rather than a sorcery so it's easier to build a deck around. Funny how Spikes are upset it didn't grant haste but Johnnies read it and know it's meant to recur ETB effects. Maybe there's a way to make it more clear that a card isn't meant for a given psychographic. Maybe naming a card 'Séance' is a pretty good clue it's not for Spike.

Silverclaw Griffin is strong. I know because I remember Plover Knights from Lorwyn block. Three-power first strikers at common are dangerous. Curiously, giving them flying helps prevent some games from stalling because it makes players want to attack with them …at least more than they do with Battle Hurda.

Skillful Lunge is a white Thunder Strike. Notice how little first strike exists on white creatures in this set? M13 has taught me it's important for your creature buffs not to be too redundant with the abilities your creatures already have. It's also dangerous to print two common first strike creatures (because they can block together in a pretty disgusting way) but fine to have one creature and one trick.

Sudden Disappearance had to happen sooner or later and Innistrad block is a pretty thematic place to stick it. At least, if you don't think about the second half of the card.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is clearly a Dev design. She doesn't do anything for the set's themes and her ability is apropos of nothing. She does fill a clear metagame role, so... there.

Thraben Doomsayer might be my favorite fateful hour card. Only 'might' because I'm not sure why he makes more people (perhaps that's the mob he's gathering), but I love the conditional +2/+2. First the people refuse to believe things are as bad as he says, and when they can no longer deny the inevitable, they rally hard to make up for it. Doesn't hurt that this cardboard is strong and my inner Spike is a whore for cards that make free 3/3s.

Thraben Heretic reminds me of a design from M13 (but not so much as to ruin it): It's an efficient bear so you'll take it whether you want the effect or not, but the effect could be useful later in the game when a 2/2 wouldn't be. Players like safe cards like these, even if they don't love them.

After the Prerelease, I had the impression that white had infinite 2-power fliers and a ton of flash. Looking through the list I see Dark Ascension has only one white flash creature and adds only three 2-power white flyers (two of which are uncommon). I mention this because it's interesting how far perception can be from reality and that helps illustrate the difficulty of communicating a set's themes through random boosters. Innistrad block has great replayability thanks to a variety of synergies and archetypes, but what really makes it great is the flavor. They chose an overarching theme, Gothic Horror, and made sure to hit it on 98% of the cards, so you couldn't miss it. Mercifully, they did so through various different subthemes (transform, undying, relentless hour, etc) for variety, but each of them funnel into the master theme. Even Ravnica, the most popular block before couldn't claim this feature, mostly missing the whole city-plane theme, and I'm honestly excited to see if this kind of work can be recreated next year and thereafter.


  1. Obviously Séance is meant to be in a deck with Geist of Saint Traft, Sudden Disappearance, and Sundial of the Infinite. :)

  2. Burden of Guilt is indeed a very nice design. At the prerelease I found it's a Pacifism that saps your mana early game when it's often quite tight, but has the upside that I can later steal the enchanted creature with one of my two Soul Seizers and have it be much more effective than if it were Pacified.

    I agree Drogskol Captain seems rather overpowered, particularly in combination with Lingering Souls.

    The question of "when and how do you push a card's power" is a very interesting one, but I don't think it's primarily a design question; more a development one. Yes, you want people to (feel they can) play certain kinds of decks, but how much do you ladle it on? Tough call. If we fancy ourselves as designers rather than developers, perhaps we can just say "Somebody Else's Problem!"? :)

    Which of Ancient Grudge and Ray of Revelation do you think feels better or worse?

    Very interesting musings on Skillful Lunge. I'd noticed the Thunder Strike mirror, but the other points are well observed. I hope those of us who aren't following the intimate details of M13 on its spreadsheets will get a chance to see some of these lessons that you're learning :)

    1. When to push a card is definitely a Dev concern, but as amateur designers, we have to do our own dev.

      Maybe Ray can find a home against some crazy curse deck, but usually people are more concerned with a mass of artifacts, so Ancient Grudge is the one that feels more powerful.

      I'm hoping to share all the design lessons from M13 eventually. Just not all at once.

  3. What are your thoughts on White getting a curse? I'm finding it quite jarring.

    1. I believe white should have more curses, actually. If you think about a curse as a spell that creates a binding rule, like Curse of Exhaustion, that's a very white thing. If you think about a curse as punishment for some perceived crime, like Prison Term, that's also a very white thing.
      Curses can also take the form of sickness or cruelty, and those forms are very black. I actually find red and blue curses more suspect. They can be justified, but aren't the color-pie slam-dunks that white and black curses are. Glad green didn't get any; that would be well outside its nature.