Thursday, May 17, 2012

Removal and Titans

I wanted to expand upon the reasons I suspect removal should be worse than it has been (apart from when Brian Tinsman is lead-designing the set). This is a follow-up to How Expensive Should Removal Be? and The Magic Ecosystem.

Creatures are inherently powerful because they stick around, can keep you from losing and can win you the game. There's no doubt in my mind that's why Dr. Garfield and the Penn playtesters made them as weak as they were in early Magic, relative to spells. A couple of decades later, we now know that creatures were too weak and spells were too strong. We know this because, as fun as spells and spell-combos can be, the heart of Magic is summoning fantastical creatures to do battle for you. Yet the early years of the game were dominated by spells because the creatures of the time just couldn't compare.

Wizards has solved this discrepancy by making creatures better. The once-rare Serra Angel is now a mere uncommon, outclassed by Baneslayer Angel. Goblin Guide and Stigma Lasher are a bit more impressive than Jackal Pup and Ironclaw Orcs. Primeval Titan and his friends (the other four in his cycle, Wurmcoil Engine and Consecrated Sphinx) outclass almost every other six-drop by a mile. Have you seen Avacyn, Angel of Hope or Sigarda, Host of Herons? These are exciting cards, but they're not good for the game.

How can I say that? There are a couple metrics. First, if a card is an auto-include in every Standard deck of that color, it's absolutely too strong. A trading card game is about building your own deck and must-play cards steal part of that joy from players. Every card should be conditional enough that you need to think about whether it's really the best choice for your deck. Second, if the card automatically wins Limited games when the other players doesn't draw one of three valid answers immediately, no one will enjoy that game, including the winner (except for sadists, and even then, only the first few times).

The trouble is, how can any creature be good enough with cards like Doom Blade and Path to Exile running around? They could print a 20/20 for 2G and it would rarely do your deck much good in Constructed because your opponent will just kill it for less mana than you spent casting it. In order to make a creature relevant among such answers, it either has to be more resilient (hexproof, protection, indestructibility) or give you card advantage just for playing it, like the Titans. But invalidating removal just puts a premium on countermagic, discard, and land destruction the three least fun lines of play in the game.

If we can't make creatures better (read: as good as the best spells ever printed), how can we remedy the disparity between card types? We can make removal and disruption worse. I think red removal is in the perfect spot right now. One mana makes Shock which kills X/2s, usually netting you one mana. Two gets you Incinerate and three gets you Brimstone Volley, which kill X/3s and sometimes X/5s, netting you 1-2 mana. Four offers up Chandra's Blaze, killing an X/4, netting you no mana, but 2 free damage. Six gets you Into the Maw of Hell, killing most any creature, plus a land. All of these answers are better, but only slightly than the questions they're solving.

Doom Blade doesn't scale like that. It kills any nonblack creature, regardless of size. So how do you make any creature that costs more than 3 relevant? My 8/8 for six is just losing me four mana on the deal. It's the same disadvantage as casting an aura on a creature and getting two-for-one'd, except instead of being down a card, you're down four mana. Which is a big deal. The only way to get around it is to make your 4cc+ creatures black, indestructible, hexproof or protection from black. Except Path to Exile still kills three out of four of those resilient creatures. So now only hexproof creatures are worth playing. But strong hexproof creatures are terrible for the game because they remove interaction, which isn't fun for anyone.

Effects that scale in cost, like Death Wind and Vendetta, work just fine, as do more limited spells like Tragic Slip or Assassinate, or more expensive spells like Iona's Judgment.

Not all Interaction is Fun

The other big part of the discussion is about interaction and the kind of interactions that are fun. Every creature and every spell with the word 'target' on is interactive. Runeclaw Bear attacks and blocks. Lava Axe interacts with your opponent's face. Stone Rain interacts with your opponent's mana base. Cancel is useless if your opponent doesn't cast a spell for you to interact with. Mindslaver's effect is entirely dependant on your opponent's deck, hand and board. How could you get any more interactive?

And yet, these aren't all equally fun effects. Attacking and blocking is the heart of the game. Creature combat, in combination with being a spell-slinging wizard and getting to build your deck however you like, is the biggest attraction to Magic. Lava Axe keeps the aggro player from conceding after her opponent has locked up the board. Stone Rain limits what spells he can play. Cancel prevents me from playing a spell altogether. And Mindslaver kicks you out of the game and forces you to watch as I violate your deck.

All of these effects are interesting and serve a role in the game. Apart from Mindslaver, I believe all of these should be printed at some rarity at some cost, even if it's more rare and more expensive than you're used to. Creatures are fun and should be worth casting. Disruption effects aren't fun and should be just good enough to prevent degenerate cards from dominating.

Creature removal is vital to the game. The biggest complaint from green players (before the last couple years) revolved around green's inability to answer creatures. There are a lot of creatures whose value is in some activated effect that never necessitates that the creature enter combat, and some creatures whose evasion means they'll never get in a scrap. That's good. Those cards add great depth and variety to the game. But every color has to have some way to deal with them. (This is why I love Prey Upon.)

As vital as it is, however, creature removal is not fun. There's a game called Milles Bornes in which you play a card on your opponent and they can't do anything else until they play the specific card that answers it. It's miserable. If you're lucky enough to already have the answer in hand, you lose your turn playing it and both you and your aggressor are back exactly where you started. If not, you just sit there drawing one card per turn until you get the answer. It often takes an excruciatingly long time to find and when you do, you spend your turn using it, and are back where you were in the first place, miles behind everyone else. There is no joy in "Here's threat X. Use answer Y or lose."

Rock-Paper-Scissors is a dirt simple game, but the philosophy behind it has powered countless excellent games because it's a great formula. Everything has a strength and a weakness, prey and a predator. You must guess which tool your opponent will choose and then select the one that beats it. As you add nuances, you might find relationships that add strategies like choosing the card that is less effective, but effective more often, or more effective, but more vulnerable. It's this underlying mechanic that makes Magic so interesting. My White Knight is better against your Sengir Vampire, but vulnerable to Shock and Nessian Courser. Your Shock is weak against my Nessian Courser and Sengir Vampire. But both of those are worse against your Unsummon than the Knight was. That's awesome.

Magic is infinitely better because there are numerous threats each with numerous answers, most of which don't knock you out of the game if you can't answer them quickly. Creatures can be answered by other creatures through combat (I keep repeating this, but it's vital: Creature combat is the star of the game), or enchantments, or artifacts, or planeswalkers, or spells. Planeswalkers can be answered by creatures (via combat), by other permanents or spells. And so on. But not every creature can handle every other creature, nor every spell every creature. The point is that there's a balance between everything-answers-everything and nothing-can-be answered-except-by-one-thing. That balance is what makes Magic interesting. Like Rock, Paper, Scissors or RPS-100, the fun is in predicting what your opponent will play and playing the thing that beats it.

Cards like Avacyn, Angel of Hope and Sigarda, Host of Herons are splashy and exciting, but they're not good for the game because they drastically limit your opponent's responses without giving up anything to balance for that. The Titans die to most good removal, but leave their caster ahead. And if you don't answer one of these or Consecrated Sphinx within a turn, your chances of getting back into the game are drastically reduced. The only strategic response to such an environment is to either play a mass of these unfun cards yourself, or else part of the unfun disruption trifecta of countermagic, discard or land destruction to prevent these bombs from ever hitting the table. All paths lead away from fun.

What I'm proposing is a game with good spells, good creatures and decent answers. A game where no choice is always right and where making crazy creatures battle each other is as valid as it is awesome. Getting there may be as simple as not making any creatures quite as bomby nor removal quite so efficient/universal. The jury's still out on Avacyn Restored, but surely you remember how much fun Rise of the Eldrazi was. Was there a Doom Blade or Path to Exile in that set? No. Was there a 15/15 with protection from colored spells and annihilator 6? There was? Er. Did it cost 6? No? Phew. Close one.


  1. I think you need to separate your arguments. One claim is that creatures which don't die to most removal are un-fun. Another is that such creatures are too good. The first claim may have merit, but the second is patently false. Avacyn, Angel of Hope is a very weak card outside of limited. She is not winning any tournaments in either standard or block constructed.

    1. I can't express how glad I am Avacyn costs 8.

      Not every card I mentioned is guilty of all the sins I'm concerned about in every format.

  2. I love playing this way. When my friends and I sit down to play EDH, the relative power level of decks are balanced and combat focused. It makes for interesting games, and if something gets a bit out of whack, we change the deck and we're all much happier for it.

    But that's not the only way to play Magic.

    Back when I was grinding out friday nights during high school, I played one deck: Tog. Small children would sit down across from me with their 5 color, creature heavy rubber banded 100 card decks and I would tap 8, cast Upheaval, float 2 and murder their dreams. Grown men would play me with their Mirari/Mirari's Wake/Crush of Wurms combo decks and I would tap 8, cast Upheaval, float 2 and crush them. I had a blast.

    Magic comes isn't just one game. It's many games. Rosewater's said it many times, but it bears repeating. One of the most interesting things about Magic is the diversity of strategies available to achieve victory. That's what makes each game feel unique and different and unlike RPS. In RPS, there really isn't that much difference in which one you choose. Rock vs Paper feels pretty much like Sissors vs Rock, even if the games have a different outcome. But the Combo vs. Control match feels way different than Combo vs. Aggro. The deck that wins with a Mindslaver lock feels WAY different than the deck that wins with Jackel Pups. This diversity is good for the game, and that's where AVR differs from Rise.

    Rise embraced the multiple strategies. The Kiln Fiend deck felt different from the Walls deck, which was different from Eldrazi tokens or Levelers. It had a CRAZY share of super efficient removal: Smite, Guard Duty, Vendetta, Flameslash? By removing most of the faster elements of Magic, that set allowed lots of diverse play patterns to develop. Avacyn has very little, and suffers because of it. It's more like Zendikar, where the decks are all aggro all the time. UR soulbound? UG soulbound? GR soulbound? These are all the same deck. Pros are already complaining about it, especially coming off of the diversity of DII. Just read PVs take: Sure, it's creature combat all the time, which appeals to some players. But it isn't as rich or rewarding as a diverse enviroment can be.

    TL;DR Diversity is a good thing. Promoting a single strategy leads to boredom, even if that strategy is generally more interactive.

    1. Who's arguing against diversity? I'm arguing for it. Cards that are too good not to play hurt diversity.

    2. I'm not sure what you're arguing for (Rise limited? But that has lots of efficient removal?), but creating an Axis of Unfun ("unfun disruption trifecta of countermagic, discard or land destruction") sounds like you're arguing against some of the non-creature based strategies that I like having in my game. If you're only definition of fun is midrange combat based decks, you're not making cards for the rest of the Magic population.

      I definitely agree that cards like Upheaval are generally "bad" for the game. My opponents weren't having fun when I trounced them with it, and it made me feel guilty for how good it was. But there's always going to be "the best cards" or "cards too good not to play". That's the nature of having cards at variable power levels.

      If all the cards were equal, you suffer the same strategic collapse when all the decks play the same.

      Wizards accepts that. With it's testing, it doesn't try to balance every card. It merely tries to vary the dominant strategies available with given card pools. Caw-Blade feels different from Jund feels different than Delver. And there are a variety of tier 2 strategies that see play as well. That's the nature of the competitive enviroment honing the strategies available. There is always going to be a "too good" strategy when all of the cards are available to players.

    3. Noncreature spells are an integral part of Magic and removing them would be product suicide. It's essential that there are varying degrees of power level among cards, and it is the nature of trading card games that some cards will rise to the top in every environment. I agree completely and propose nothing to change any of those things.

      I don't believe any of what I have outlined above is contrary to any of those things.

      I don't agree that there will always be cards too good not to play. Not remotely.

    4. @Duncan: The general accepted wisdom at the moment is that countermagic, discard, and especially land destruction are "unfun" for a significant proportion of the player base (note: not all players), and so Wizards' general design principles at the moment are to reduce (note: not eliminate) the quantity and/or power level of these cards. This is not to encourage "midrange combat based decks" being the only decks, at all, but just to try to encourage the kind of play that a majority (note: not all) of players find more fun.

      And I definitely agree with Jay that any "too good not to play" cards are a flaw. Wizards agree with that, in fact: when a card is so prevalent as to completely warp a format into "decks that play it" and "decks tuned against it", they often ban such a card to encourage diversity.

  3. Oh, that's a very interesting question. FWIW, there was something similar in today's Zac Hill's article about development on the wizards website. He mentioned red removal in Avacyn limited that was very restricted, but said how having the removal be more situational was more interesting because players had to make choices (not just first-draft the removal every time).

    Part of the problem with the titans is that many people resent the best creatures being so hard to get hold of, but that's probably unavoidable in a CCG if wizards is to continue to be able to sell it. Part of the problem is that they're almost auto-plays in those colours. Not exactly, there are definitely decks that don't want any of them, but there's not that much choice amongst powerful 6-cost creatures, which is repetitive. This can be fixed by making a slightly wider range of strong creatures.

    But I think you're right that a systematic problem is that doom blade is sufficiently versetile that the only way creatures can beat it is by being hexproof or having powerful triggered abilities. But that means that there's no reasonable answers to THOSE creatures. If instead of doom blade we had several cards that hit a smaller subset of creatures, then expensive creatures can be powerful by being immune to the better removal (or by having "protection from black spells" or some other more restricted form of hexproof), but there's still something else which can handle it!

    It sounds silly to say that the answer to powerful creatures is worse removal, but it may be true. If we had worse removal, we can have powerful creatures that don't all have hexproof.

    Note: I don't think removal should always scale based on toughness, that's what red does, the black equivalent of shock is probably something that can kill a large creature, but is too narrow to auto-play.

    1. Doom Blade is not the unique best black removal spell- not by a long shot. Black decks usually run 1-2 copies of it, along with some amount of Curse of Death's Hold, Go for the Throat, Black Sun's Zenith, Tragic Slip, Dead Weight, Sever the Bloodline, or Liliana of the Veil.

      We are already living in a world of diverse answers to diverse threats.