Friday, May 11, 2012

Off-Color Landfall

Jay Treat has proposed looking into off-color landfall as a replacement for the uncommon landfall creatures we've been using in our fan M13 set. Off-color landfall is a great idea with a lot of potential, so I would like to provide some analysis and ideas for what off-color landfall could be.
Our M13 currently has a cycle of landfall creatures that require a specific land type to trigger. Their purpose was to provide an incentive to stick to your main colors rather than straddle evenly across many colors. This is an example of the landtype-specific landfall cards we've been using:

This is an example of what an off-color landfall version of this cycle might be like:

I'd like to analyze the properties of this mechanic in general, not necessarily limited to the viewpoint of using it as an uncommon cycle for our set.

Encourages two-color play
As a landfall variant, off-color landfall is a really good way to encourage 2-color decks. If the card above costed 1GG rather than 2G, that would most certainly encourage 2 color decks.

If there was a double cycle going in both directions (for example, if Green had one Plainsfall card and one Mountainfall card, etc.) and they had costs like 2G, that may encourage nearly mono-colored decks that splash landfall cards from both allies. (For example, a mono-White deck that splashes the Green Plainsfall guy and Blue Plainsfall guy).

On the other hand, if off-color landfall were to be done in large numbers to provide a noticeable incentive to 2-color pairs, it should probably be done for every color combination, including enemy color pairs. Otherwise, players would be forced into adjacent color pairs every draft and that could get monotonous. (At least, that was my impression with triple Shards of Alara draft).

In our set's case, if we're doing it with only an Uncommon cycle, perhaps it's not a big deal. Another possible direction is to have an enemy-color landfall cycle at Uncommon since the Commons are incentivising allied colors already. Finally, this mechanic could replace our Bond ability (the Plainsfall ability above could just be called Plains Bond) and go on common cards. It's scary to do so at this stage, but I definitely think we should at least try it out.

Infrequent activation
Whenever a card with a bonus (such as Zendikar's landfall) gets activated, people's brains produce a little reward. Some people like small, frequent rewards. Some people like big rewards even if it's less frequent.

Perhaps one reason landfall was popular was because it hit a good spot where it generated many small rewards over time. Every time you play a land, it must be like hitting a small reward bell in your mind, going ding! ding! ding! Well, I don't actually experience it in that way, but I'm trying to imagine how the majority of people do. If you compare landfall with Super Mario Brothers, Zendikar's landfall can be likened to jumping through a cluster of coins, rather than a less frequent reward such as leaping past Bowser and saving a mushroom servant. Those small but frequent rewards can certainly feel good.

Another good thing about the original landfall was that it makes your draws always count for something. If you don't hit a spell, at least you hit landfall. As long as you have a landfall effect on the board, your draws are never wasted.

In contrast, a landtype-specific landfall is much less frequent. In an evenly 2-color deck with normal mana, you only get to top-deck the type of land you want every 4 or 5 turns. The first few times you may have help from lands in your opening 7 cards, but afterwards there will be long intervals between the trigger activations. Unlike with normal landfall, you can still top-deck blank cards — lands of your other color. I don't think it's necessarily a problem though, if the reward is made bigger, or if the creature is good on its own.

Here's an example of a creature that gives you a big, infrequent reward:

This effect is more dramatic because you don't know when the cannonade will go off and there is time for the opponent to fight back in between.

There could also be creatures with weak abilities that you still don't mind activating only infrequently:

I think this ability is actually more fun when you get infrequent glimpses of the opponent's hand, rather than keeping it public all the time. The creature's stats make it good enough to play on its own in Limited.

Some abilities matter continuously, even when they're only actually activated once in a while:

If the opponent attacked with this, and you had a Giant Spider, would you block? What if you had a 4/4 and the opponent attacked you with a 2/1 while s/he had this card in play? There's some strategy and mind-games to be had.

Some abilities only make sense when they're infrequent:

This could potentially feel like one of Red's mana ritual effects, providing a temporary boost to mana every few turns in an erratic and unreliable way. If it produced mana regularly every turn, it would feel more like a Green druid.

If this were a backbone mechanic for an expert set, where you want that mechanic to make all of its cards work towards opening up a particular play style that's unique to that set, it might be a little bit tricky to accomplish that with only the above style of cards. (Although I believe there could definitely be some way or another to do so). But if the aim is to make a handful of flavorful cards that each spice up game play in their own way, I don't think its unfeasible at all.

Now, I would like to diverge for a moment and talk about three categories of creatures (which may overlap for many creatures) that I've always liked.

Creatures with evocative special moves
The identity of creature cards can be enriched by what they do — by their signature moves. I talked about this topic in this post. It's like Ryu with his Shoryuken technique. What is Pikachu but an oversized squirrel, if it didn't have its lightning-based attacks?

Many cards with activated abilities already have that style of characterization, such as Prodigal Pyromancer or Samite Healer. However, there's a restriction that arises from the fact that Magic creatures mostly are allowed to spam their abilities every turn. A card like Royal Assassin is very cool because of its ability, but when it hits play on the opponent's side, it stops all of your action on the battlefield and you often just have to wait and hope to draw a removal spell soon. Most cards with repeatable abilities aren't allowed to have such a powerful effect.

Like the Pirate Brigade example above, by making the ability activate only once every 4-5 turns or so, you can put more awesome abilities on cards. In play, there can be tension about when it will go off next, rather than be a Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief where once it hits play, the rest of the game is mostly about how soon the opponent has removal. (With options such as immediately, next turn, maaybe the turn after, or too late.)

Creatures that help aggro decks in the long game
I really enjoy aggro vs. control matches in Limited. Some of the best Limited games I've had were games where I'm playing control and I drop to a low life total, but manage to crawl back up and eek out a victory.

However, it's easy for these aggro vs. control matchups to be one-sided in one way or another. Aggro might kill slower decks without giving them any chance to do anything. An example of that is the Travel Preparations deck in Innistrad. I wish the flashback cost on that card was 3W or 4W rather than 1W. That would allow the aggro WG deck to sustain its attacks over time, upgrading its creatures just as they're about to get outclassed, rather than put up so much immediate pressure that there's very little the defending deck can do.

When the aggro deck doesn't win immediately, the opposite problem can occur; the control deck may have essentially won the game when it stabilized with blockers and drew many extra cards, but the game drags on for many turns even though there's almost no hope for the aggro deck to turn things around. The aggro deck must watch on, with most of its creatures either dead or too small to attack.

I've read that in one of the Duel Decks, the designer tried to balance them so that one deck has the advantage in the early game, the other deck had the advantage in the later game, but then in the very late game the first deck has the advantage again. There's a lot of back and forth, and there isn't a tipping point after which one deck is completely dominant. It would be cool to find a way to make aggro vs. control matchups in Limited games play like that as well.

In this game plan, aggro would start out strong in the early game, but once the control deck stabilizes, control needs to wrap up the game in a hurry with its win-con. The aggro deck has some way to trickle in damage, and having scored a lot of damage in the early game, it still has a chance of winning even against the high damage output of whatever the control deck's win-con is. Or, the aggro deck has some high-cost effect built into the deck for the late game, and it's some kind of effect that is more effective when utilized by the aggro deck rather than than by the control deck.

The Levelers and Invokers in Rise of the Eldrazi were like that. These were effective creatures for their cost to begin with, so that they contribute to the initial aggro pressure. But they also had some abilities that kicked in during the late game to turn things around. It's important that many of these effects are "built into" the decks rather than taking up extra slots as separate cards; the aggro deck needs to devote many slots to redundant offensive creatures and using too many slots for late game effects may dilute the initial offensive pressure.

The effects of cards like the Stalking Minotaur example above would help a stalled-out aggro deck occasionally punch through some walls, once every few turns. The Invokers could spam their abilities every turn once you reached a certain mana range, and while some cards like Lavafume Invoker were really fun, Dawnlight Invoker often felt lame when it worked. The landfall "activate once every few turns" style could be fun in another way by making the race more volatile and unpredictable. Here are some examples:

The control deck could also use this mechanic as a tool for control:

I think this card would be really powerful, but unlike a tapper that locks down an opponent's creature every turn, this one will have holes in its defense and the long term result of the struggle will be unpredictable. Even when it's working effectively, there will be reason for the aggro deck to have hope and fight on.

Creatures that define the play style of color combinations
While most landfall creatures in Zendikar had abilities that made the creature itself more effective in combat, it doesn't have to be that way. It could be some ability that defines the attack style of your whole team. With off-color landfall (such as a White creature that triggers its ability upon playing a Forest), the uses are limited to a particular 2-color pair, so each deck isn't going to have as high a density of them as a typical Zendikar deck had landfall. However, the off-color landfall cards could still have high impact despite their low numbers if they provide some contribution to your deck's attack, like the Centaur Captain or the Stalking Minotaur above, rather than just attacking well on their own. If they are made impactful like that, they could be a tool for distinguishing each color pair's identity and attack style.

Here's an example of a White Forestfall creature:

You could imagine the Unicorn rearing up in fury when it gives itself +2/+2. When it gives another creature +2/+2, it's giving that creature a ride. Anyways, this card helps a team-attack style that feels White-Green, similar to the Centaur Captain above.

This guy helps a different type of Green-White deck:

This would help a Green-White fatty deck survive long enough for its fatties to slowly take over the game. Since it could target itself, the lifelink ability is never wasted. It's also another example of how an ability that would be problematic if it worked every turn (lifelink on a 3/4) can be the source of a tense, unpredictable race if it happens only every few turns.

This one helps a Green-Red deck:

This is another aggressive card, but unlike Wildheart Steed and Centaur Captain, this one is not about swarming with a team of many creatures. Rather, it's about attacking with a single high-power creature, which Green-Red is good at producing. Once again, it could target itself to be a formidable 3/3 first strike 3-drop.

This one is for Blue-White:

This one might be better if it taps an opposing creature, perhaps even tapping it down until the next turn. Anyways, it's meant to help an aerial swarming style. Perhaps it could say "creatures with flying you control get +1/+1" instead.

So, I've talked about creatures with iconic special moves that recharge only every few turns, creatures that help aggro fight on in the late game, and creatures that define the combat style of different color pairs. Off-color landfall is good for all of these applications.

Below are my guesswork about the practical aspects of these cards:

Color pair considerations
One consideration of off-color landfall is that unless you only want 5 color pairs to be viable, you need to print at least 10 of these creatures, one for each color pair. This could be offset by the fact that with powerful cards like the Moonlit Harpists or Centaur Captain, you only need one card to affect that color pair's strategy.

It may feel a little strange if it's not a double cycle. For example, if the Green-Red color pair is represented by a single Green creature with Mountainfall but not have a Red creature with Forestfall, it might make you always want to be Red-heavy in Green-Red decks. To prevent that, a double cycle that goes both directions might be needed. But if it's done with enemy color pairs as well, it could be a drastic measure, requiring 20 cards. However, there could still be a configuration such as 10 at common 5 at uncommon, 5 at rare.

Of course, if these are limited to Uncommon, perhaps their influence is not big enough they cause color pairs to be completely unbalanced. (Although presumably the reason they are being done would be because they do have some influence).

The type of effects to allow
These effects, like landfall, should for the most part only be temporary effects that don't leave a mark on the board in terms of card advantage. This is especially true for commons (if any) as well as any low-cost cards. The reason is because these cards provide an advantage with every land drop. If one player gets access to a landfall trigger early and accumulates card advantage every step of the way as s/he plays lands while the other player didn't draw his/her landfall cards but drew a similar number of lands, the disparity would be huge. The cards that have effects that provide card advantage should mostly be late game-finisher style cards.

The Uncommon landfall creatures we currently have includes a pinger and a 1/1 token-producer, and although these are card advantage abilities, they seem ok. Past sets have had cards that do these things repeatedly without any conditions attached, so based on their rarity, the low frequency of triggering, and the small size of the effect, it's probably not a problem.

Stats of the creatures
Since the abilities trigger infrequently, the creatures can have appealing stats that are normal for their cost. Also, this helps ensure that limited players can have enough playable creatures for their decks, since landfall creatures that they can't trigger would still be at least playable based on their stats. If it weren't so, for each color pair there would be a whole swath of creatures in the set that are unplayable in that color pair and there might be a shortage of creatures. It might require putting more creatures in the set than usual.

Cost of the creatures
If the creature has an ability that doesn't create a huge swing, such as Spying Imp or Cliffland Centaur above, it could be on a low cost creature. A more powerful effect like the Act of Treason effect on Demonic Taskmaster should probably only be on a creature with high cost such as 5 or 6. This is just a guess, and my rough reasoning at this stage is that the longer the game goes on and the more cards you draw from the deck, the number of lands you draw by that turn becomes more stable. I also think these abilities are fairer when you are about to run out of land cards in hand and close to top-deck mode in regards to lands.

One of the card examples above that doesn't follow this costing method is the Wildheart Steed, and it may very well be a little too swingy. In some games you'll cast it on turn 2 and then play a Forest every turn and attack with it as a 4/4, while in some games you might keep drawing your Plains. It's hard to tell without testing.

Tracking and Memory Issues
Cards with this mechanic should be as resonant as possible and offer a flavor explanation as to why the land in question helps the creature do what it does. That would help a lot with memory issues. These abilities should probably be "may" abilities, so that the effects get announced each time. It would be up to the controller to remember these effects that are beneficial to him or her, but if the opponent forgets, that opponent can just experience the effects as they happen, as random events that occur during the game. It's good that most of these effects occur at sorcery speed on your turn, before or after combat. It's not frustrating like forgetting an opponent's tap ability and attacking into a creature that can be pumped.

Overall, I still have a good feeling with the current test iteration of Bond creatures. It's a very hard mechanic to make a visceral experience out of, but we may be close to getting there. But it would also be exciting to try out what a landfall approach would feel like in actual play. We don't know how good or bad our current mechanic is until we've contrasted it with similar mechanics. It might conclude in "this looks promising, but we don't have time to do it right" but as a learning experience that would also be fruitful.


  1. I'm all for XC off-color landfall to encourage two-color as well as mono-double-splash and two-color-middle-splash decks, in keeping with our bond efforts at common.

    I'm opposed to replacing bond with landfall at common, partly because it's too late to make such impactful changes to the set and still polish the end result (it'll be enough of a set back to fit in this uncommon double-cycle) and partly because bond feels distinct from Zendikar where landfall—even plainsfall etc—do not. Using it at uncommon feels like more of a nod than a re-treading.

    Good call on forestfall et al happening less often than landfall. I agree, we should make the reward bigger to offset that. We could also meet in the middle:
    "Landfall — Whenever a land ETB under your control, gain 2 life. If it's a Plains, gain 5 life instead."
    "Landfall — Whenever a land ETB under your control, draw a card if it's an Island. Regardless, draw a card and then discard a card."
    "Landfall — Whenever a land ETB under your control, you may put Skeleton Crew from your graveyard on top of your library. If it's an Island, draw a card."

    I'm entirely opposed to enemy color anything in a core set except for enemy color hosers. Demonstrating the primary concepts of the game is our goal. Demonstrating exceptions is counter to our goal, and reduces the specialness of expert sets, where the exceptions are the biggest feature. We have demonstrated that it's possible to make CdE enemy color decks that splash the middle color, so I don't think we're shutting down archetypes by not explicitly making enemy color cards.

    Most of your sample cards have merit, though I like Centaur Captain, Demonic Taskmaster, Wildheart Steed best. I agree with almost all of the rest of your sentiments, and I appreciate you thinking out so far ahead because that'll alleviate the time cost of this experiment. If we go this route, we probably need at least one way to put lands OTB at instant speed or at least when it's not your turn.

    Jules raised an interesting point in the card file. Should a black card's Islandfall ability be black, blue/black, blue+black or blue? There's an argument for each.

    - Skeleton Crew is a black card with a black ability, activated by islands. The card is completely black, but it requires help from an allied color to do its thing. That seems admirable enough, particularly for a core set.

    - Centaur Captain is a green card with a green or white ability, activated by plains. Both green cards and white cards could have this ability on their own, so it feels appropriate no matter how you look at it. The design space for hybrid isn't massive and has already been plumbed a bit, which could leave us with stale effects.

    - Goblin Lumberjack is a red card with a red and green ability, activated by forests. Neither color could do this quite as printed on their own (Red rituals cost you a card, while green mana production is usually mono-green or, at rare, any-color). This feels like an ability that requires both red and green. That said, it'll be hard to design simple cards like these.

    - Moonlight Harpist is a white card with a blue ability, activated by islands. White can't bounce permanents it doesn't control, but blue can, so it's clear that the island is giving us an ability our white card never could. This combo actually feels the closest to gold to me (too close).

    (- To be exhaustive, there's one more execution in which the ability hoses the shared enemy color. For example, a black card with Mountainfall could have "~ deals 3 damage to target white creature and you gain 3 life." I'm not sure I'd want to do that five times, much less ten.)

    There are pros for each of these and I'd be fine with any of the first three. My gut says hybrid (#2), but I think we should design the double-cycle for each and see which one comes out awesomest.

  2. Encourage two color play: I want to point out that these basic landfall creatures were never designed to support 50/50-split two color decks. Or even 25/50/25-split decks. They were originally designed to support 75/25-split decks. And because of that we were able to support ten different decks with only 5 cards. For example, Sunblessed Tactician supports Wg and also Wu. The Off-color landfallers each only support one deck. (I suppose people could build a Gw deck with Centaur Captain, but they would not be getting much out of it.)

    I don’t support the idea of making cards for enemy color pairs. I only don’t want to waste slots on having the cycle go both clockwise and counterclockwise.

    Infrequent Activation: This is the main strike against using off-color landfall. Their triggers become much more frequent if the land they care about corresponds with their color.

    At this point it seems like the article suggests that Landfall become our returning mechanic, with a design twist that some are basic landfall. Then the Bond creatures would be supporting that theme (and I guess would have their ability word removed.) If we did that we could actually reprint some attractive Landfall cards from Zendikar block (Lotus Cobra)! How much time should pass before returning to a mechanic, even in as small a dose as this? I don’t think this is a bad choice. Certainly players would more readily recognize Landfall as a returning mechanic than Landbond, which never had an ability word before.

  3. I'm with Jay as far as keeping things normal. The core should showcase allied pairs, and I want hybrid effects on allied color landfall so that the abilities aren't misconstrued as belonging to the wrong color. I agree that enemy colored decks should get support, but I think the explicit options go against more rigid goals. We need to support archetypes by including strong synergies (and archetypes) that don't literally say "play mountains in your white deck."

    I do like a lot of your proposed cards too, but I worry that we're running up against stated R&D policy not to evolve mechanics in core sets. The issue isn't one of complexity; it's one of design space. Mechanical evolutions are reserved for sets that are using newness to sell because it obviates the need to use up new areas of design space. One could argue the core set needs the same promotion, but we should be agreed on that point before breaking the mold.

  4. Oh, for sure. I like the cards submissions in the article too. Quite a bit.

  5. @Jay:
    Putting 10 cards at uncommon to support a theme seems drastic. I think designing the cards shouldn't be too hard, because there's less constraints than with commons where we need to make sure they form a tight curve. We just need to make sure they translate into one of our "small nifty creature" "defensive creature" or "ace beater" slots.

    But it feels to me like if it's such a backbone mechanic, why isn't it at common? The only comparable theme I can think of is New Phyrexia's uncommon Phyrexian Mana cards, but do we want to go so far?

    Now that I think about it more, the main choice is whether we want bond or landfall at common as our keyword mechanic. (And we can put the other one at uncommon, or not use the other one). It's about the frequency of the bonus - do we want something that activates many times, or something that turns on statically? That's the real choice. Otherwise, they both care about allied lands, and there's no particular reason to have 10 of both to reinforce an allied land theme.

    We could totally try it out to see how it feels, but that would be quite a funky core set. I don't think it takes such a big nudge to get players to play 2 or 2.5 colors.

    I'm thinking it's weird to keep Bond keyworded so we can say it's a returning mechanic, then to keep landfall unkeyworded so we can say "We don't have two returning mechanics. We didn't evolve a returning mechanic either." Cards like Stone Thrower have already evolved landfall in the sense of using design space.

    It's interesting to consider which of the real-world constraints are worth following. If it's something like "how do we make it friendly to beginners while still providing deep game play" or "how do we keep it feeling basic like a core set" then I feel it's totally worth playing within these constraints even if the people who are going to play this set are not actually beginners. But if it's a constraint like "we need to conserve design space" then it could be that in an experimental set like this, there's actually value in playing around with that space to see what can be done with it. Maybe we can name this M19 and hypothesize that landfall had been evolved already!

    As for enemy color pairs, my feeling is that they are a normal part of Magic now and there's no reason why they can't appear in a core set. Magic is better when all color combinations are possible, and in fact all color combinations do get played. It's both the ideal and the reality, and to me it feels like there's no reason to hide it in order to narrate a story about the color relationships.

    Some old core sets have had a full set of painlands including enemy colored ones. When Maro was asked why the Innistrad dual lands didn't support allied colors to match the monster colors, he said that in hindsight he would have put the enemy colored lands in M12 so he could put the allied lands in Innistrad.

  6. It's tricky both flavorfully and mechanically, but have we considered something like this?

    Rhox Surveyor 2W
    Rhox Cleric
    Whenever an Island or a Forest enters the battlefield under your control, gain 2 life.

    It falls into a lot of the traps that some of the other designs have fallen to, and I'd be immediately concerned about finding five cards that work resonantly for the cycle (when I can't even come up with a single great one at the moment), but it's another option. Since there isn't enough pie to go around, it'd probably have to be the Black card with Black ability triggered by Island OR Mountain route, but that might come at the sacrifice of any meaningful flavor at all.

    The other problem is one of psychology; if you're a new player playing strictly WG, would you feel less likely to include this card because you're not playing blue at all? In other words, do new players subconsciously read ORs as ANDs? Once you think of the card as being uWg, does it get filed just under the Bant shard in your mind or can it still function fine in UW or WG?

    1. I think a White creature should get either a Blue ability or a White/Blue ability from an Island. If it's a White creature that gets a White ability, why does it need a land of another type? It feels too mechanical and arbitrary of a condition to me.