Friday, May 4, 2012

M13 Trajectories: Cursed Captain

Welcome to M13 Trajectories, where I discuss cards from our virtual M13 set and how they changed through comments from multiple people.

Today, I'd like to talk about a Tribal lord that helps two tribes. Ever since the Great Designer Search 2, I have been thinking a lot about this topic.

There have been a few tribal lords that help two or more tribes, such as Death Baron and Lovisa Coldeyes. However, while these may have been flavor hits, they weren't very successful at producing decks with a mix of different tribes.

Tribal decks often have more than one card that produces tribal synergies; for example, a Vampire deck may have a Kalastria Highborn in addition to a Vampire Nocturnus. So, let's say you have a card that says "Elves and Warriors you control get +1/+1" in your deck, and you wanted a few more tribal synergies in your deck. You would either put in more Elf synergies in the deck, in which case the non-Elf Warriors would miss out from the bonus, or put in more Warrior synergies in the deck (such as Obsidian Battle-axe), in which case the non-Warrior Elves in your deck would miss out from the synergies. This is not a fatal problem since some tribal decks rely on only one card for tribal synergies, and it is not absolutely necessary that every creature in your deck receives a bonus from every synergy card, but it is one weakness of dual-tribe lords.

Innistrad block has shown many interesting ways of weaving together two tribes. Mayor of Avabruck gives bonuses to Humans and Werewolves in a fascinating and meaningful way. We see the theme of Humans dying to become Spirits, reinforced in a loose, open-ended way by cards like Dearly Departed and Requiem Angel. Finally, we see Vampires and Humans married in a strategically interesting way, where it's not "Humans and Vampires you control get +1/+1," but instead one tribe is the sacrifice outlet while the other tribe is the food source. While not all of these were pushed to be constructed-worthy strategies, they show new takes on how to weave together two tribes flavorfully and meaningfully.

I had been thinking about inter-tribal relations for a long time, and when we chose to have Pirates as a tribe in our M13, I proposed this card.

This card would allow you to mix Zombies and Pirates, which is useful since there aren't going to be many Pirates in print, while still being effective in a mono-tribe deck of either tribe.

This card was not received favorably at first. It received comments that can be paraphrased as:
  • I don't want a 4-of card to be Mythic.
  • It has a hint of awesomeness but it's not strong enough. As a high rarity Pirate, it should be a kickass legendary Pirate.
  • The pump to Zombies looks tacked on. It should just try to be a good Pirate lord.
  • If it wants to be a lord for Pirates and Zombies, it should say "Pirates and Zombies you control get +1/+1."
It was definitely a mistake to make a card you want 4 of in a deck as a Mythic, but I was caught off guard by some of the other comments. This Pirate gives your Pirates (including itself) undying, a powerful effect. For Zombies, it's a +1/+1 lord that doesn't go away with a single removal spell. It could support a Pirate deck, a Zombie deck, or a Pirate and Zombie deck. But that won't help if players didn't perceive it that way, so I tried to rephrase it to make the card's effect clearer.

This one explicitly states that the Captain can bring itself back. The order of the effect text follows the life and unlife of a Pirate in chronological order like a story, where it's shown as dying, coming back as a Zombie, and getting stronger. Once I changed it to this, more designers came on board.

This card allows all the synergies in your deck to work together, whether you have additional Pirate Lords or additional Zombie Lords in your deck. Your Pirates all come back as Zombies and benefit from the Zombie Lords. Your other Pirate Lords turn into Zombies to provide additional Zombie population. Unfortunately the other Pirate Lords won't give their Pirate bonuses to the Zombies in the deck... but the Captain still does a good job of weaving together the two tribes overall.

I think it would serve a valuable role in the set since it's going to be hard to have enough tribe members for a constructed Pirate deck, and even if we do, it might feel like a pre-built deck created by the designers. For example, the Illusion deck in M12 didn't give players much freedom to choose creatures themselves. At least there have been Illusions in past Magic sets, but there isn't a single constructed-worthy Pirate card in history. This Captain would provide players the freedom to mix Zombies and Pirates in any ratio, each valid in its own way.

I originally considered making it a 4-drop 4/3 or other such powerful size, but I realized the best thing it can do for a swarm of Pirates or Zombies is to protect them from Day of Judgment so I made it a 3-drop 2/2.

This card is currently not in our set. What happened? This happened:

» Click here to reveal «

The Cursed Captain card was designed before Dark Ascension (or the undying mechanic) came out. When Dark Ascension was released, the other designers felt the Captain was too similar to this card. 

As you can tell from my posts, I love how Magic creates a wide range of viable strategies. I imagine designing/developing Magic environments as similar to designing a kind of hanging mobile — you can add or remove parts to it, and as the balance of the mobile changes, it adapts to take many different forms. But some additions or subtractions would cause it to take a boring, crimped-up, vertically flattened shape that doesn't move, while some additions or subtractions would allow it to rotate, taking many elegant shapes. 

When I try to decide if a pair of cards are too similar, I look at the strategies each card enables. The Pirate Captain allows a completely different strategy to exist than Mikaeus does, a different play experience than you get with Mikaeus. It creates deck diversity; the Pirate Captain makes you consider a Pirate deck with Zombies, inviting you to make card choices for your deck that you would never make if the Captain didn't exist. To me, the Captain and Mikaeus are different cards because they allow you to build different decks.

Other designers might emphasize the emotional impact or mental associations that a piece of card text creates. But I don't even think the flavor of Mikaeus is so close to the flavor of the Captain; while there is a lot of textual similarity (bringing something back from the grave and giving +1/+1), the flavor of the Captain is that he transforms Humans into Zombies, while Mikaeus makes monsters stronger.

Although the two cards do share a necromantic flavor, there are some concepts that are such fantasy staples that they can go in every set, such as a Dragon or an Artifact. A creature that returns dead creatures from the grave as a Zombie is a fantasy staple. If there is a set about Angels that save people, that doesn't mean we can't have an Angel that saves people in the core set following it. In a core set following metalcraft, we can still have cards that care about artifacts and artifacts that grow better with other artifacts. I believe Cursed Captain should be in the set.

I hope you enjoyed this. Come back on Monday, when I talk about a card that was changed from one card type to another.


  1. I think this article started out a bit confused. I assume "tribal lords that help more than two tribes" is meant to be "tribal lords that help more than one tribe"? Death Baron only helps two tribes.

    I really don't get what you're saying about Bramblewood Paragon though: that card is purely a Warrior lord. There's only one tribe it helps; it has nothing Elf-lord-y about it at all. (Well, okay, it's kindof a lord of two different tribes, "Warriors" and "creatures with +1/+1 counters"; I've put it in a Graft deck with no other Warriors before. But I don't think that's what you were getting at.) So if I have a Bramblewood Paragon in a deck *as the only tribal card* and I'm trying to add more tribal synergies, that sounds like I'd simply want to focus on Warriors with cards like Obsidian Battle-Axe, Brighthearth Banneret and Boldwyr Intimidator.

    I agree with you that Cursed Captain isn't a remotely similar role-player to Mikaeus.

  2. Thanks. I definitely was confused. Fixed those parts.

  3. I agree that the cards' play patterns are different, but DFCs have shown us just how much people are willing to judge cards without playing with them. There are common DFCs that people had to play with in limited, but with no equivilent here people may just write this card off as another Mikeaus and never reevaluate that assumption.

    1. Do you mean DFCs were misevaluated because of similarities with flip cards? A hard-to-evaluate card doesn't have to be a common card that people are forced to play with in Limited. The chance that people would perceive this card as weak is not an issue I'm concerned about. It's up to the players to find out how strong or weak this card is; it's their challenge.

      The real problem would be if this card doesn't communicate its identity or flavor, or if it's unappealing, and that's why I changed the word order to make it clear how it's supposed to be a guy that helps both Pirates and Zombies, and in what way.

      I don't think people will shrug off an ability just because it didn't help them on a 6-drop, when they see it on a 3-drop. There is a new 4-drop 4/4 haste dragon revealed in Avacyn Restored; I don't think people think it's unexciting just because it reminds them of Volcanic Dragon.

      If it's strong, people would find out it's strong. After all, pros found out that a card like Olivia that looked like a limited-only bomb was actually good for constructed.

      The issue I was trying to emphasize was, "are cards that seem to repeat a previous block's theme allowed?" and my answer is, "if it's an ever-green theme like zombies coming back from the grave, then yes it is allowed."

  4. For a number of reasons, Zombies exist in larger numbers and appear at a greater clip than Skeletons within Magic. This *might* be enough justification, but outside of that fact, I still believe if you're going to do undead pirates, Zombie is not the right call. Skeleton, while not a truly perfect match either, is much closer to the right creature type.

    Re:Innistrad Block: DKA's Humans-and-Vampires connection was fine, though I would say Kamigawa's Ogres-and-Demons connection worked even better.

    As for the Captain himself, I'm not a fan of this card at the core-set level. There is always going to be the issue of it being a card that says "all zombies get +1/+1" that doesn't really care about zombies.

    I also would say that while the Captain and Mikaeus may play slightly or somewhat differently in different decks, they share *very* similar mindspace, and Undying just seems like a better version of this card. I'm Not Interested (capital N and I) in pushing the pirate deck for Constructed outside of the kitchen table, so this card just doesn't seem to hit any pitches for me.

    Lastly, we do have a black mythic pirate, and without a to-die-for synergy between the two, I'd rather keep the mythic we have than muddy the water with another splashy rare black pirate.

    1. "There is always going to be the issue of it being a card that says "all zombies get +1/+1" that doesn't really care about zombies. "

      - I don't see how that is an issue. This card isn't just for giving Pirates +1/+1 after they are reborn as Zombies; the card also makes perfect sense in a mono-Zombie deck where creatures start out as Zombies. The Zombies would receive the bonus upfront, and also receive bonuses from other Zombie lords in the deck upfront. Meanwhile, the Pirate-becomes-Zombie clause is not wasted in a mono-Zombie deck because the captain brings himself back to maintain the +1/+1 bonus for other Zombies.

      If players see the "Zombies get +1/+1" and think that it's for Zombie decks only, that is 0% a problem. The first use that they see is not a lie or misperception, it's just that there are other uses for them to discover, and that is actively a good thing.

      "Undying just seems like a better version of this card."

      - I don't understand what you mean about "better" when they're for different decks. Are people going to build Pirate decks, then put Mikaeus in it to boost them up? Not that Mikaeus works on Human Pirates, but even if it worked for Humans, if you had Mikaeus, you would just use the best monster creatures available in the colors and you'd have no strategically valid reason to focus on Pirates.

      Like I said, cards don't just exist to outdo each other, they are also there to produce variety in the available strategies, and this card does that. This card gives you a legitimate reason to use Pirates. We're doing Pirates as a theme, and we might as well support decks for it. And there simply aren't going to be enough cards for a Pirate deck, whether it's for a kithchen table or not.

      Is there any particular reason why you don't want to support a Pirate deck (other than just the fact that you used capital letters to say so?) Personal preference (such as not being particularly interested in playing it yourself) doesn't count as long as there are players who do want to play it and as long as it isn't actively unfun to play against. This one card slot would open up a range of possibilities, so set space isn't the issue either. If there's another reason, I'd like to know.

      "Lastly, we do have a black mythic pirate, and without a to-die-for synergy between the two, I'd rather keep the mythic we have than muddy the water with another splashy rare black pirate."

      - I don't understand what you mean by 'muddying the water.' What exactly does it mean in this case? What specific problems would arise if we did both?

      We do have a mythic Pirate-themed planeswalker, but it has no synergy with any of the other Pirate cards either. Meanwhile, this captain and the planeswalker at least share the theme of bringing things back from the grave.

    2. Illusions was incredibly obviously pushed to have an impact on Standard; if we did that with Pirates this year, that'd be two aggressive blue (or at least blue-in-theory) tribal decks pushed in two years. From time to time, you (or Nich?) have brought up the lack of "playable" pirates from Magic's past. What I mean by not supporting a Pirate deck is keeping the Pirate deck for its intended audience - the casual crowd. (Between Rishadan, Cloud, and Scourge of the Seas alone, with our Pirate lord there's enough for a casual deck.)

      Wyeth is new. He takes up a certain amount of mindspace. Putting in an unrelated card with similar flavor at mythic or rare isn't out of the question, but it's something I would object to.

      And then to wrap around to the first point - in this day and age, "tribe you control gets +1/+1" isn't enough. The captain may not be useless in an otherwise Mono-zombie deck, but he's not great there. Maybe an Anthem that survives a removal spell is actually good enough for the T2 zombie deck – maybe I'm wrong. (But that doesn't obviate my qualm about the zombies/skeletons, etc).

    3. "There is always going to be the issue of it being a card that says "all zombies get +1/+1" that doesn't really care about zombies."

      I think possibly the problem is similar to the one you fixed before, that if a card has a pro-zombie ability and a pro-pirate ability, that even if it's a really good zombie card, people feel they're using it wrong for using just one half. It's a problem that exists with printed cards. I'm not sure of the best way of fixing that, whether there's any good way of rewording it, or to just ignore it.

  5. Cursed Captain is a REALLY cool card. While some zombie players won't play it because it also says 'pirates' and some pirate players won't play it because it also says 'zombies', the card is really very good in a mono-zombies, mono-pirates or zombies/pirates deck. Being so thematic on top of all that makes this an awesome card.

    I would argue that a tribal lord that just gives +1/+1 to your tribe but also has undying (which Captain effectively does) is a very strong tribal lord. You have to kill him twice to make my team smaller. That's huge.

    The Mikaeus issue is unfortunate. While there are some obvious differences between Mikaeus and Captain, they're both black tribal lords that grant [part of] your team undying or something that plays identically 99% of the time. Even if you believe these two characters are different enough, it's awkward that we're printing plays-like-undying-but-isn't the very set after actual undying goes out of print.

    Players will ask, why isn't this just undying? This card has internal justifications, good ones, but most/many players won't see that and will just be confused. I was hoping to see more responses from players who weren't on the design team to get more perspective.

    What do you think? Would it be weird or awesome to see Cursed Captain in M13 after Innistrad block?

  6. I think he should start as a zombie.

  7. Good article.

    I had two issues with the Cap'n, one of which I got over. First, I thought that we should only have a very few Pirate cards in the set, and since the Black planeswalker is one in flavor, I'd prefer the tribal lord/splash rare be blue. I wanted to hit the traditional pirate trope you would find in blue. It wasn't a deal breaker for me, but a preference.

    The second issue was player preception once Mikaeus was spoiled. We are amataur designers doing a very ambitious project and I wanted to protect us from obvious attack points. Even if the card is different in substansive ways, the similarities are unfortunate. I wouldn't want to follow any recent set with a Rare or Mythic Rare that could invite comparison. I mean this is more than Trope similarity, it's also mechanical similarity.