Friday, April 20, 2012

The Magic Ecosystem

Zac Hill's article today revealing Cavern of Souls and Ian's discussion of same both relate to and expand upon a conversation that has been bubbling up for many years. I touched the tip of this iceberg a few months ago when I wondered if removal shouldn't cost more.

For the first decade of Magic's existence, spells were largely better than creatures. Wizards R&D has been trying to make the game more fun to play. Because players will play what is strong, regardless of how fun it is, they are now trying to make what is fun strong. Creatures and combat are (arguably) the heart of the game, so players will have more fun playing if creatures are better and combat happens more often.

There are a number of ways to make creatures better. You can make them more efficient, more resilient or only partially answerable. Leatherback Baloth, Geist of Saint Traft and Inferno Titan show that all of these paths have been utilized. The other option is to just make spells less good, thus bringing their relative value back to parity. The trouble is, that only works for Limited and Standard; non-rotating formats like Legacy and Modern already have broken spells, so the obvious way to make creatures better there (apart from banning literally hundreds of cards) is to just make better creatures.

At the same time, R&D has been slowly ramping down the power level and occurrence of land destruction, discard, and countermagic because players don't enjoy having their ability to play the game taken away. Stone Rain has given way to Tectonic Rift, Hymn to Tourach to Distress, and Counterspell to Cancel.

Remember when Lightning Bolt was replaced by Shock? Er, the first time? Same basic idea. Bolt was a one-mana answer to almost any creature costing less than five so they toned it down a bit. Remember when they brought Bolt back for a couple years? They could do that because the quality of creatures between now and then allowed it. Bolt was no longer the monster it relatively had been, though it was still strong enough to be an automatic four-of in every red deck and a splash in a number of otherwise redless decks.

Someone thought the same might be true of Mana Leak. "Creatures are better now, so Leak won't dominate as much." But Mana Leak doesn't turn off against X/4s like Lightning Bolt does. Instead, it's even better now than when it was first printed because the game has become so aggressive that passing until your fifth turn is often suicide.

Regardless of the power of Mana Leak, all countermagic — including the relatively weak Cancel — have become better. Unlike Doom Blade, they remain just as effective against hexproof creatures and ETB-creatures like the Titans who still net value even if you kill them right after they land.

Wizards' solution? Adding a free Boseiju, Who Shelters All to Cavern of Souls, a land that would have been plenty cool and much more elegant on its own. While Zac talks about this being an answer to Snapcaster Mage, that's only a tiny fraction of the impact Cavern will have on the game, and that's no accident. They can't unprint Force of Will or Counterspell or any of the other too-good countermagic that sees Legacy play, and banning all those cards would be unprofessional. And they can't continue to make creatures better to compensate because that just makes countermagic better.

I don't know enough about Legacy or Modern to predict how or how much this printing will affect those formats, though I do know it will, but I can see how R&D felt like this was an important addition for the long-term health of the game. For me, I'd rather just see Mana Leak and Snapcaster Mage never printed again, because that solves the problem in the arenas I care about most, but I appreciate the intention behind Cavern.

Will it work? Will players stop playing creature-countermagic just to avoid having it blanked by Cavern? They still have Primeval Titan and Sigarda, Host of Herons to worry about, so maybe they'll just play more discard and hope their opponent doesn't top-deck or run more land destruction to deal with the Cavern. Seems ironic that nerfing countermagic just makes the two next most annoying lines of play more important.

I'd love to say that the best solution is to stop making creatures absurd and start making spells weaker, but that does nothing for older formats. I'm not sure there is a good answer that works for every format. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

1 comment:

  1. For a long while, the removal vs threat balance looked just right numberwise (if you base it on the amount of removal played in tournament decks) - some decks played lots of removal, some decks only played a tiny sprinkling of removal. It wasn't like the old days when every Red deck started with 4 Lightning Bolts, every Blue deck with 4 Counterspells, and every White deck with 4 Swords to Plowshares. People had a legitimate choice to play more synergetic cards for their own strategy rather than play more removal or disruption for their opponent's strategies.

    Mana Leak was intentionally powerful and intended for a limited time only, Snapcaster was a mistake, the two together may be temporarily causing a problem, but overall I think the current paradigm was a success numberwise.

    The reason I say numberwise is that the way of balancing creatures with removal was brute force, and the Titans were stupidly good.

    Finding an alternative would be tricky though, to say the least.

    I'm sure there are other card games where creatures are center stage and spells are only like minor cantrips, hand fixers, and giant growths. However, I'm not sure how compatible that is with Magic where the appeal is that anything is possible including weird combos.

    Also, if we were to gradually tone down both removal spells and creature spells, every new set would look more and more boring.

    We can't ignore the role that removal plays for Magic besides just allowing powerful cards to be designed:
    - it makes the board fluctuate over the game.
    - it's one of the main factors making the game interactive. If you disagree, Invisible Stalker would like to have a word with you.
    - it's one of the main source of deep decision-making that doesn't feel "chessy."
    - it allows players who lost tempo to catch up.

    I don't know the solution, but I think fatties with powerful enter-the-battlefield and leave-the-battlefield effects are way better than those who generate so much advantage every turn that they need to be killed right away.

    By the way, there should be keywords like "Discardproof, Counterproof, and Shuffleback(anti-reanimator clause like Elrdazi)" to make it easier to design big fatties without using up text.