Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dev Concerns - Vapor Ops

In the midst of Dark Ascension spoilers, Aaron Forsythe commented that one of the recent reveals, Séance, had been included on the most recent Vapor Ops test, a part of the R&D hiring process. This lead me to dig up an old Randy Buehler article in which he created (or recreated) such a test for readers to challenge themselves with. After the break, you'll find my evaluations of each card presented on Randy's test. One of the more interesting aspects of this task is that nine years later many of these designs still demand thorough analysis, which I take as an indication of Magic's resilience and depth of possibility rather than a sign of stagnation. However, there's still a great deal of context that has changed, and I make no effort to hide that fact.

New World Angel
Creature - Angel (U)
Whenever New World Angel dies, return it to the battlefield and sacrifice a permanent.
Whenever New World Angel deals damage to a player, you may add WW Mana to your mana pool.

This first design is perhaps the most obviously poor, failing to perform on practically every axis, looking like it was dropped from the Prophecy design file. The most immediate observation is that, for a White Uncommon, it has two abilities that are not only unsuitably complex for the rarity, but the mana-generating effect is far outside White's color pie. Perhaps more demonstrative that this design doesn't work is that not only does the first ability have the potential to create a degenerate (and stalled) boardstate with a nigh-unkillable, medium-toughness flying creature, it can also behave as a self-sufficient infinite loop for death triggers, as you can just sacrifice the Angel to its own ability. Excising the second triggered ability and adding a mana cost to the first could salvage this design, but such efforts might be better spent creating an Angel that's actually fun to play.

Twiddle Bug
Creature - Insect (C)
Sacrifice Twiddle Bug: Tap or untap target permanent.

Unlike the Angel, Twiddle Bug is a straightforward design comprised of tried-and-true elements. Questions can be asked, such as "should it have flying?" or "should there be a cost to sac it?", but these can only be answered with the help of a greater context. As is, I imagine it would be appropriate for the majority of all sets.

Lazy Goblin
Creature - Goblin (C)
Lazy Goblin can't block.

Though the average power-level of creatures has risen a great deal since 2003, long past the heyday of Jackal Pup's power, a common 2/1 for 1cc is still a thought-provoking question. Zendikar and M12 have taught many lessons about the virtues and drawbacks of promoting aggressive limited environments, and one of those lessons is that such aggression can put a stranglehold on the number of viable archetypes. As players first got their hands on Innistrad, many voiced fears about the speed of Werewolves, and it's not uncommon for an early Merciless Predator to dominate a game. But it's now clear that a number of safety valves have been included and, even within a distinctly tempo-oriented format like Innistrad, players are able to explore the boundaries and discover things like the self-mill Spider Spawning deck.

Norwood Leprechaun
Creature – Leprechaun (R)
If Norwood Leprechaun could normally block a creature, it can’t block that creature.
If Norwood Leprechaun would normally be unable to block a creature, it may block that creature.

In an un-set, a design like Norwood Leprechaun is par for the course, being a card that goes out of its way to force the player to decipher a lot of rules text for very little reward. Functionally, these two sentences produce an effect that can be roughly described as pseudo-Vigilance, an absurd workaround for a problem that no longer exists. As a rare, this design would single-handedly disappoint more children than the revelation that Santa isn't real.

Life Cycle
Enchantment (R)
1G: Put a wood counter on target creature.
1B: Put a sludge counter on target creature.
Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard, for each wood and sludge counter on it, put a 2/3 green and black Fungoid token into play. For each excess wood counter on that creature, put a 0/3 green Woodling token into play. For each excess sludge counter on the creature, put a 2/1 black Sludgling token into play.

Life Cycle exists at the intersection of overcomplexity and inexplicable flavor. It possesses two activated abilities that each place a unique counter type on any target creature, potentially filling the board with a bunch of wood and sludge counters that don't actually do anything until a wooded and/or sludged creature dies. When the creature does die, Life Cycle produces a variable amount of three different creature tokens, each in a variety of colors, creature types, and P/T compositions. We've seen this concept played out many times, perhaps most recently on Feed the Pack, but never has that flavor been devoted to the balancing of Fungoid, Woodling, and Sludgling tokens. Due to the lack of a nontoken clause on the trigger, a Sludgling can somehow spawn Woodlings!

Heart of Argoth
Legendary Land (U)
When Heart of Argoth comes into play, you may play an additional land.
T: Add G to your mana pool.

Now THIS is a spicy design that I would have loved to see in Zendikar block. Though it sets off alarms, behaving something like a Mox, the Legendary supertype does a good job of keeping it in check, much as it does on Mox Opal. When it works, you get a value greater than Mox Diamond, but you open yourself to a possibility of multiple Heart of Argoth in your opening hand — a serious issue, considering it functions best on turn one. Factor in that you would most want this in a base-green deck, where ramp is a natural behavior, there's a great possibility that this could and should appear in a set. That said, you will never in a million years see this at uncommon; being a highly marketable design that could impact every format, it would be in Wizard's best interests to print this at Rare, if not Mythic.


  1. Heart of Argoth isn't "something like a Mox", it is just actual straight-up Mox Emerald with Legendary, right? I think saying that you "could and should" reprint Mox Emerald in Standard probably goes a long way towards earning a failing grade on the test.

    1. Sam, I don't think you can outright discount the concept. It's a Legendary Mox Emerald as Land that requires another, different, land. Yes, that's still ridiculously powerful, and being a land is often better than being an artifact, but there can be a time and a place for printing such a thing. Chrome Mox and Mox Diamond require some amount of card disadvantage to function — is that significantly worse than being Legendary and unable to produce multiple types of mana? Would a non-green deck go out of its way to include a sufficient number of Heart of Argoth in order to ramp? Would this cause decks to become partly green just to make better use of it?

      In a Standard environment with Primeval Titan, Solemn Simulacrum, and Strangleroot Geist, yes, this is completely inappropriate. But I obviously don't think it's as easy to dismiss as you make it out to be.

    2. Heart has potential as a concept but isn't quite printable as presented. Adding an ETB-tapped clause would help, but the biggest problem is the rarity. This should never be printed at uncommon.

      Cool idea to review this test. Always neat to see what has changed and what hasn't.

  2. It's an unshatterable Mox Emerald, but legendary. KILL IT WITH FIRE.

    Also, legendary lands are a thing of the past.

    1. I'll kill you with fire.

      And Eye of Ugin wasn't that long ago.

    2. Ah, here's the link I was looking for:

    3. Unshatterable, uncounterable, and unprintable.

    4. @HV - Right, that same information had been discussed in a greater article, and they still printed Eye of Ugin as Legendary because the circumstances demanded it.

      They make exceptions all the time. And sometimes they even like printing totally preposterous and broken cards like Heart of Argoth.

  3. - I think you did a thorough job with most of these. You pointed out a couple of things I didn't notice.

    - I wonder if Norwood Leprechaun would even work according to the rules. Would the two abilities cancel each other out?

    I didn't realize the vigilance factor and was thinking about blocking Invisible Stalkers.

    - It seems that this test was made before the Legend Rule fix, so with Heart of Argoth they may have expected an unfairness problem. If you play it first, your opponent can't play his/hers.

    I think Hearth of Argoth is super swingy. Mox Opal was often worth playing as a 3-of. With 3 of Hearth of Argoth in deck, sometimes you would get super fast hands your opponent can't hope to compete with, and sometimes you would get hands that are virtual mulligans. Even if it turns out that the risk factor balances this card overall, it would be a very swingy kind of balance that's not fun.

    I also think it's too close to being an automatic one-of inclusion in Green decks under most metagames. (And even for non-Green monocolor decks that have room for colorless mana producers.) There's almost no risk for a single copy. Even if your opponent plays one, at least you get to catch up by playing your own, since you still get an extra land drop after both lands die.

    1. I wasn't even thinking about whether the Leprechaun could block unblockable creatures. Would that be a situation determined by time-stamps or do "can" statements always supersede "can't" statements? All the more reason it shouldn't be printed.

      I remember that someone was working on a keyword during GDS2 that was basically Norwood Leprechaun, an attempt at conveying a sleepwalking. Conceptually interesting, but I could only imagine the sort of hideous boardstates it would generate, where you suddenly WANT to attack into a legion of untapped creatures.