Tuesday, January 3, 2012

M13 Playtesting with Tom

I got another chance to playtest M13 live yesterday and with one of my favorite playtesters, Tom. I hadn't had the chance to make many of the changes that followed the original playtest to the cards themselves so we were working with largely the same pool. Tom found a few of the same problems with the set that the last group did, but not all (hence the importance of testing with multiple groups). He did find a bunch more issues however and shared several perspectives with me that were—to put it mildly—revelations for me.

On Fixing
Tom liked the uncommon dual lands, just as everyone has. We threw some theories back and forth whether they'll be good for older formats or bad for them. Ultimately, we don't know Constructed well enough to say. Tom then observed that if you splash a Forest in your WU deck in order to support a pair of Mastodon Calves, that'll make you wonder if you shouldn't go ahead and splash that Prey Upon as well, but if you've got a Fungal Field to accomodate that splash you might not even think about the green cards in your sideboard. Whether that's true for you or not, it instantly struck me as a fair prediction for many many players. It's a fascinating slice of psychology and something to consider.

Tom was also concerned about the cantrips in our set, but not for the same reason Ty was. To him, they felt like cards we stapled a draw onto in order to make them good enough to play. It's certainly true that they'd all be very weak cards if you removed the draw but kept the cost and effect the same and it's even true that a number of cantrips in Magic's history were specifically designed to make an otherwise marginal effect playable. Withstand—the white card in our cycle currently—is a perfect example. Not many modern players will maindeck a Healing Salve, but tack on two mana for a draw and suddenly it's something to seriously consider.

I hadn't thought of the cantrips in our set that way because that's not why we added them. My purpose was to add some smoothing to the set. I think Magic has enough variance that every set should have at least a little something to help games go smoothly. Scry did it for Mirrodin, Cycling has done it multiple times and cantrips—though less obvious—do it too. So the cantrips are here for smoothing. Does that invalidate his perception? Not remotely. Other players will see these cards the same way and that's a factor to consider.

Mark Rosewater and other very experienced, very wise members of Wizards R&D have explained over and over again that bad cards are good for the game. As a student of Magic Design I've tried to accept that and justify to myself why it must be true, but it's one of the hardest lessons I've tackled. Simply, I've failed to internalize the lesson despite trusting that it must be true. Yesterday, I finally discovered an insight that helps my to understand why bad cards are so important to the game. To give you as much a chance of getting the same idea, I'll explain not just the realization but how I came to it.

Something I noticed while building my second Magic 2013 sealed pool ever is that the set has a lot playable cards. When I open my packs, I sort by color but also by quality: I make a row of cards I'd like to play if I choose that color and a row that I'd rather not. That helps me more quickly choose which colors I want to run and the rest kinda falls into place after that. When I sort my M13 cards, my unplayable piles are much smaller than I'm accustomed to and my playable piles that much larger. For experienced players, that's at least as good as it is bad because it suggests more depth to Limited and allows your skill to matter more.

For new players, it's a very dangerous thing. Not only will the edge go to better players (because they'll have more insight on close card evaluations as well as identifying winning archetypes), making your learning games even more one-sided against you, but the act of building your deck will be much more difficult, even frustrating. I'm glad that bond and our dual lands will help players identify color pairs to go after, but even with your colors chosen, whittling a deck of 30 playable cards down to 23 or 24 is hard for the best of players, much less new ones.

So, independent of arguments I've heard like "bad cards give new players the chance to learn that some cards are better than others and thus put them on the road to real deck-building" and "if every card were good, power creep would be inevitable," I've got a new one that I can actually sink my teeth into: If a format has too many good cards, deck-building becomes harder and players won't have as much fun building decks. The ones that manage that hurdle will lose more games to the experienced players around them. Ultimately, a better overall cardpool dramatically throttles player acquisition. And that's bad.

A Card That Ruins Magic
At some point we realized we couldn't print Sorin's Vengeance if we weren't reprinting Sorin Markov. I already had the basic idea for Wyeth, so I created a card hole named Wyeth's Treachery. It remained blank until I made a final pass so I could print the set out and so I just tossed something in there. The result is a legitimately impressive card and fun to play too. It wasn't even hard to justify it in black. Unfortunately, it ruins the game. That's a bold statement, but Tom's explanation convinced me it's true. If you know your opponent is playing this card and your deck isn't fast enough to race it or controlling enough to counter it, all you can do is remove all the best cards in your deck so that when it does go off, you won't get beat down too badly. That's not fun and it's not something we want players to ever have to do. Adding 3 mana to the cost of Bribery doesn't make the card bearable, it just extends the inevitable. As a final kicker, if you're playing Wyeth's Treachery in your deck and I get mine first, I can find yours and play all of them out of your deck before finally taking your next best card.

You're the Planeswalker
This was my favorite revelation because I had never thought of it, but when Tom put it to words, I instantly recognized that I felt it too. Before there was a planeswalker card type, You, the player, were the most powerful wizard in the game, rivaled only by your opponent, the mighty and unpredictable wizard sitting across from you. No entity in the game could challenge your supremacy, not even the dangerous Lord of the Pit. It's escapism, sure, but it's awesome escapism and it's the reason a lot of players got into the game. Now you've got competition. Is Ajani really working for you, or is just helping you out because he pities you?

Tom went on to clarify that the original planeswalkers from Lorwyn didn't really overshadow the player because they didn't do anything you couldn't do. Garruk Wildspeaker's ultimate was Overrun, which is a cool spell, but it's one you can cast four times if you feel like it and it's not even the most biggest spell in your arsenal. In contrast, Jace the Mind Sculptor could pop off Brainstorms like they're nothing. You're not even allowed to cast Brainstorm. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, tyrant that he is makes you look like a wee lowly lackey. Granted, Jace has been banned and Bolas is Magic's single greatest villain, but the point stands.

Yes, we want planeswalkers to feel unique and powerful and exciting, but never to the extent that they overshadow the player. It should always be clear your planeswalker buddy is here because you're the boss and that you will always be able to outshine him.

Mostly Unrelated
One last thing I want to mention. The subtitle "Goblin's Lair" is no longer appropriate since we've renamed lair to bond. We could just make it "Goblin's Bond", but I've got another suggestion. Lately I've become enamored with the idea of reintroducing Pirates to Magic in this set. I'm not remotely suggesting Pirates replace one of the core races like Vampires did Zombies. What I am suggesting is that everyone loves Pirates and they fit into the fantasy setting like a glove. A stinky glove that you don't know where you got, but it's leather and you look a little bad-ass wearing it. Basically, instead of a Ub Wizard lord, we'll use a Ub Pirate lord and include 3-6 pirates across rarities. Oh and Mr. Blackboot, our new black planeswalker. It's not a big theme, but it's a noticeable theme. A fun theme. Long story short, what do you think of "Pirate's Bond" for the set's subtitle? Other suggestions?


  1. The criticism regarding Wyeth's Treachery is a bit hyperbolic. From a psychological perspective, it's only slightly more problematic than Praetor's Grasp, and its impact on gameplay as an 8-mana Rare Sorcery is something less than desirable considering your opponent COULD actually sideboard out whatever spell could make that 8-mana expenditure worthwhile.

  2. It was hyperbolic, true. Apologies for that. I would argue Wyeth's Treachery is notably worse than Praetor's Grasp (good example, btw) because Grasp doesn't let your black deck play my Day of Judgment, Gaea's Revenge or Emrakul.

    It's probably worse in casual/Commander games than constructed tournaments because people will often play it in the former and not so much in the latter, due to the cost and the situation you describe.

  3. How about this: chop off a mana and make it so it can grab only "black or colorless cards", that way it can't exceed the functionality of Praetor's Grasp, while still having the possibility of efficiency. (If you grab a Darksteel Forge or some such.)

    I mean, you have to understand that in Commander/Casual, Monoblack Praetor's Grasp can just get Oblivion Stone, or a Sword, or a million other busted artifacts.

  4. I'm not terribly concerned about player perception of the cantrips. I doubt some sort of designer anger about making bad effects playable is going to impact enough people to outweigh the smoothing they add.

    I certainly agree on there being too many good cards, and I've uncovered another reason. By having few enough good cards that players often end up running one or two bad ones, people get to feel clever finding bad cards that contribute meaningfully to their limited decks.

    Agreed. Would it be more fun if it let you cast something from their yard? Then they can still feel like playing strong cards is good as long as they can keep them alive. Maybe just permanents from the yard, since otherwise it still hoses instants and sorceries.

    As for the Planeswalker question, I have absolutely no clue what portion of the player base feels that way, but PWs with ludicrous abilities are probably more fun for the Timmies who don't, so some sort of estimate on their relative populations would help us choose a route.

    Finally, I'm a bit concerned that Pirates aren't exactly high fantasy. They aren't out of place enough to concern me about having Wyeth, but since Core Sets are intended to be D&D-esque, I'm not sure if this is the best place for a Pirate theme. On the other hand, it may be time to move a bit further away from that particular restriction. I'd bet that more people than ever before are coming to Magic from other backgrounds, and for them the distinction is most likely meaningless.

  5. @metaghost: There's a divide between established casual and bottom-rung casual, which is more like limited. Established casual players have enough ways to make each other miserable that they have to rely on social stigma to keep things in line, but this card is horrifically unfun for the players who have intro packs and a few boosters that they've built decks out of, and then they get their one cool dragon stolen every game.

  6. Is there a list of the cards in the set? I don't understand a lot of the comments because I can't see what we're talking about.

  7. At least "goblin's lair" sounds like a phrase that describes something. What on earth is a "pirate's bond"?

  8. Also, there is a grand total of one Pirate creature in Modern right now: Pirate Ship, reprinted in Time Spiral. The last new pirate creature was printed in Masques Block in 1999. So, you're proposing a tribal lord for what is effectively a brand new creature type. That's the kind of thing you should do in an expansion, where you can promote the new creature type as a selling point of your set- see Werewolves and Mayor of Avabruck. Doing it in a core set seems just plain bizarre to me.

  9. That was my feeling at first, but I've warmed up since then. Who says there needs to be a complete Pirate-tribal deck for constructed after just one set?

  10. What's the point of having a tribal lord that you can't build a deck around?

  11. Pirates. I have some ideas for the MSE files when I get home, but briefly:

    First Mate of the [ship name] (Rare)
    Creature - Human Pirate
    Other Pirate creatures you control get +1/+1 and have islandwalk.

    Even if Pirates are in Blue and Black and splashed to Red, I believe the Class Lord should be Blue. And I am more than happy to make it a fixed Lord of Atlantis/Elvish Champion/Goblin King. There is really no need to get fancy. The name follows the same idea that there are lots of Mayors of Avabruck.

    Wyeth Blackboot. Jay's version is out default, and very popular. But with an addition of three-six Pirates, my tribal version may not be so bad. As a reminder:

    Wyeth Soulcursed (Mythic Rare)
    Planeswalker – Wyeth
    +1: Creatures opponents control get -1/-0 until end of turn. Pirate creatures you control get +1/+0 until end of turn.
    -2: Put a creature card in target opponent’s graveyard onto the battlefield under your control.
    -6: You get an emblem with “Creatures you control have first strike, deathtouch and are Pirates in addition to their other types.”

    Like Beknighting King, this was orginally designed as a lone Pirate card for a regular creature deck. And after tripping the ultimate, his first ability gets better for all your creatures. But now, if players can build a Pirate deck it'll have more constructed potential.

    I really like the idea of a Red Pirate with just "THIS must attack if able." Or you can make it do something Pirates need to have done.

    Charming Buccaneer (Common)
    Creature - Human Pirate
    T: Target creature can't block this turn.

    (I'm assuming Pirates want to deal damage to the opponent to trigger effects.) This is a less complex version of Goblin Rimerunner. My only gripe with it is that it steps on the toes of Goblin Shortcutter, which I love. A similar effect (and flavor) would be if it had the Goblin Tunneler ability of "T: Target creature with power 2 or less is unblockable this turn." Muy Caliente!

  12. Havelock has a good point, you want to excite people about things as they're released, so we could include some Pirates but put the lord in the next expansion so that there's a tribal deck by the time we incentivize building one. Alternatively, we could make all of the Pirates in m13 strong cards. The tribe would be super-linear to start, since there would really only be one way to build it, but at least it would be there, and could become more open with future expansions.

    It just seems ludicrous to market the set with Pirates and not immediately have at least a tier 3 Standard deck.

  13. Well, I suppose that's what they did with Illusions. But there have been a ton of random Illusions for the past several years, giving casual players a big pool to draw from.

  14. The Illusion deck in Standard isn't solely Illusions. As long as there's an interesting deck that uses a few Pirates, that can suffice for now. Casual players have 21 pirate cards to draw from. That's not a lot, but actually adds to the Johnny appeal even as it limits the Timmy appeal.

    I would suggest that the tribe should be super-modular to start since there won't be critical mass for a parasitic deck. When pirates get printed in a later expansion, they can be parasitic _and_ benefit from the modular pirates we made in M13.

  15. Uh, yes, especially casual players whose favorite sets were Mercadian Masques and Portal Second Age.

  16. I think we should hit a very light note with Pirates, almost like Soldiers in M10, except maybe a few spells could hint at exploring, sailing, raiding, etc while still making sense in a core set.

    If expansion sets are like theme parks, then maybe a core set with a theme could be like a themed restaurant. There might be a few props or menu items reminiscent of the theme, but you can just use it as a normal establishment if you want to. It would be an interesting experiment as to whether you can add a flavor theme to a core set.

    Since Pirates like to sail and explore places, they could blend with the set's land matters theme.

    I don't think Pirates should appear in the set's tagline. Generic Pirates aren't as awesome as Angels and Dragons. Hopefully, they can still be memorable denizens of the world. (Maybe they could be awesome with the right setting and cool Creative work, like Skaabs are cooler than a 50s movie Frankenstein, and Innistrad Werewolves are cooler than Lon Cheney wolfman. But I don't think a core set would do that much creative fleshing out here.) The tagline could be something along the lines of "Explore Dominaria" or something.

    I'm actually not really sure about the Pirate planeswalker, though. It's a weird occupation for someone who could go anywhere and fetch anything.

    Making Pirates into a modular component of your deck is a good idea, although I'm not exactly sure how it can be done. I can't think of any existing tribes that currently work like that. One theme Pirates could have is looting.

    For example, if a Pirate card said "whenever this or another Pirate enters the battlefield, draw a card for for each Pirate you control, then discard that many cards." A lot of decks could care about that effect. But if you just put more and more Pirates in your deck, it would end up doing nothing - so you want to combine it with something else.