Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Scars, in Retrospect

As armchair designers, we usually flip through new set spoilers to analyze and critique new cards. However, with Scars of Mirrodin about to rotate, I thought it might be worth trying something different. I’m going to take a look back and consider how some of the different aspects of the last block worked out, focusing especially upon what Scars block taught us about making Magic.

Before I get into the play aspects, I want to touch a little on the creative side. This is usually an area I don’t focus on as much, and it tends to be one of my weaknesses as an aspiring designer. Aside from difficulties like thinking of card names and flavor text, it means I have trouble coming up with a unified vision to pull my ideas together, which leaves me with piles of scratch paper with unconnected cards. But playing through Scars block, I had a minor breakthrough in how I look at block structure.

Telling Stories with Color

Most blocks use art and flavor text to tell a story (and some succeed more than others), but the best stories in modern Magic are the ones that can be reduced to stories about mana colors. For example, Ravnica block was about ten two-color factions battle, Alara was about three-color factions being forced together into a new five-color world, and in Innistrad, White-Green Humans battled legions of monsters arranged in allied-color pairs. Conversely, in the weakest blocks in Modern (Kamigawa, Time Spiral, and Lorwyn/Shadowmoor), the story is either not expressed through color systems or, in Lorwyn’s case, those systems are too muddled to be comprehensible.

Scars block took the color-story to another level though, since instead of just an outline or background, the block had a complete three stage story with an introduction, a conflict, and a climax with a resolution, all contained within the structure of the block. In the first set, the Mirrans live in all five colors, while unbeknownst to the natives, the Phyrexians infiltrate Green and Black. In the second set, the Green-Black Phyrexians attempt to seize control of each color, and battle with the Red-White Mirrans. In the final set, the Phyrexians win, and take over all five colors. Even the other top blocks haven’t managed to put together the same complete story arc into their color structure, and it’s definitely something I want to replicate. I may continue struggling with naming cards, but if I can put together a color-story, I’ll have a framework to build in.

That said, I love the game for the play experience first and foremost, so what follows is how I saw Scars actually play out.

In Limited

At this point, there’s been an encyclopedia worth of material written about Scars limited, so I’m not going to spend much more on it. It more or less boils down to this: if you liked infect as a mechanic, or limited environments with viable aggro plans, then you probably liked Scars limited. If you didn’t like those things, you probably didn’t like Scars limited. I personally was frustrated with triple-Scars draft, but I think that was specifically because of Untamed Might (it probably needed to wait a set or two) and Tumble Magnet (it really should’ve been uncommon). Scars-Besieged and Scars-Besieged-New Phyrexia have been my favorite drafts so far. The reason is the ability to have three neighboring players in the same color, yet pursuing three completely different deck types. Admittedly, I’ve only been playing limited for a few years, but I can’t think of another draft format that had the same ability; again this is something I want to replicate if I ever build a complete block.

In Legacy and Other Eternal Formats

There are three cards from Scars block that have important lessons for would-be designers: Mental Misstep, Green Sun’s Zenith, and Slash Panther.

Of the three, Mental Misstep was the only one that we know was designed with Eternal formats in mind, apparently as an answer to the question, “What would happen if any color could play a top-tier counter spell?” In retrospect, this was a big mistake, since it super-charged disruptive aggro decks like Merfolk. The question R&D should have asked was, “What happens if we give Blue a powerful spell?” The obvious answer is that Blue as a color will become stronger. It’s the mirror image of the current question on Red card-filtering: “What happens if we give another color a worse version of a Blue mechanic?” Well, that color will still be worse than Blue.

Green Sun’s Zenith, meanwhile, felt like a card that was supposed to be a Standard staple. In Legacy, it basically created a whole new deck archetype in Maverick, a new “fair” deck built around tutoring for Dryad Arbor and hate bears like Gaddock Teeg and beatdown creatures like Knight of the Reliquary.

The biggest surprise of all from Scars came in Vintage with the rise of Cat Stax. While previous Vintage Stax used moxen and a full set of Mishra's Workshops to power out resource denying artifacts (like the namesake Smokestacks) and lock down the opponent, Cat Stax cut the actual stax for Lodestone Golems and added a supporting cast of Phyrexian Revokers and a couple Phyrexian Metamorphs. The finisher of choice once the opponent is locked out? Slash Panther! I have this mental image of someone sitting around the Pit, looking at Vintage results, shaking his head and saying, “Really? That’s what the kids are playing now-a-days?” This was a card that was ok in Limited, had little or nothing going in other constructed formats, but it conveniently filled a hole, so now a deck that literally costs several thousand dollars is anchored by a 25-cent win condition.

The take-away from these cards is that 60-card Eternal formats are so diverse and so unpredictable that there’s almost no chance that cards will behave as predicted, and it’s probably not worth designing cards with them in mind. Eternal formats are like feral cats, in the sense that even if you really like them as a Designer, there’s not much you can do for them other than leave some kibble out for them once in awhile, and spay and neuter the ones that become too disruptive. Other than that, they’re really better off left to their own devices.

I hope that Modern will be house-trained at some point, however, the format is currently at a point where cards are being introduced more quickly than I think players can process their impact. Certainly Scars block had a significant, negative impact early on, with Glimmerpost being totally broken, and Green Sun's Zenith getting banned. (I know some players have very hard feelings about GSZ being banned; in which case I would refer you to Gavin Verhey.) Since the banning, Birthing Pod combo decks have seen some success both online and in tournaments, but the metagame is still so fluid it's hard to make accurate assessments about what decks should look like, which makes it hard to design for. At the recent 2012 Player's Cup, none of the top pros played Birthing Pod decks (which was supposedly a tier 1 archetype), while several chose to play Zoo (which was supposed to be dead without Wild Nacatl or GSZ). Before anyone has a chance to process those results, Return to Ravnica will be in circulation, which in combination with the gold cards from the previous Ravnica and subsequent gold blocks will open up a huge can of worms. I have no idea what will happen in Modern, and I am positive no one else does either. You'd have an easier time guessing which random nonsense card will be the next Vintage staple. 

In Standard

Standard is where most players spend their time and money, so it’s where I’m spending most of my words. And I know this will be debated, but I’m writing it anyway: Scars as a block was underwhelming in standard. Despite it’s strong sales and limited popularity, Scars block's impact was muted by its neighboring blocks.

Since R&D moved to its New World Order, creatures have been the centerpiece of Standard play. Unfortunately, the only creature from Scars block that became a deck centerpiece was Deceiver Exarch, and only for the brief window after Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned, but before Zendikar block rotated out. The format-defining decks for Zendikar/Scars standard were Caw-Blade and Valakut Ramp, and the only relevant creature from Scars in that mix was Solemn Simulacrum, for its role supporting Primeval Titan ramp decks.* Even in the broad range of not-quite-top decks like UB Control, GW(x) midrange, or Red Deck Wins, Scars creatures tended to either fill in necessary role players (like Hero of Bladehold, as a generic 4-drop finisher), complement other stars (like Consecrated Sphinx or Wurmcoil Engine providing situational support for Grave Titan), or were outclassed by the other components of the deck (compare Goblin Guide or Lightning Bolt to Spikeshot Elder or Galvanic Blast).

It’s worth clarifying that for Caw-Blade, the central deck engine was Jace, the Mind Sculptor, supported by Preordain, Ponder, fetches and man-lands. Not Stoneforge Mystic, not Squadron Hawk, and not the swords. It’s true that without the Swords of Whosis or Whatsis, Caw-Blade doesn’t become a deck. But the “blade” was largely the frosting on the horrible Jace cake. When Sword of Body and Mind was first released, there were a fair number of Naya toolbox decks that played cards like Vengevine, Fauna Shaman along side their Stoneforge Mystics and Squadron Hawks. Those decks were quickly punished into oblivion by the Jace engine. If the swords or Squadron Hawk had never existed, the best deck would still have been the deck that made the best use of the Jace engine (most likely the RUG ramp deck with Lotus Cobra and Titans), since its power and consistency provided simply blanked any of the creatures or build-arounds Scars block provided. It was just coincidence that Sword of Feast and Famine happened to provide another angle to gain value. Valakut Ramp was a similar situation where none of its key cards were from Scars block. Though it did get value from Green Sun’s Zenith, there were also many players who skipped GSZ entirely.

At the back end, in Scars/Innistrad standard, there was a brief open period during Fall 2011 when decks like GW midrange, mono-red burn and mono-black infect were viable tournament decks. But these were quickly snuffed by the rise of Delver and Wolf Run Ramp, which quickly returned equilibrium to a UW disruptive control vs RG ramp dynamic. This was occasionally punctured for a weekend by a Scars-featurette like Tempered Steel, Puresteel Paladin, Grand Architect, or Birthing Pod, but none of these ever quite made it to consistent tier 1 status. They each had a tournament weekend and were reliable FNM warriors, but they each were fundamentally outclassed by the engines available in Zendikar and Innistrad.

It may be worth elaborating a little bit more about Birthing Pod, since several current decks (especially Naya midrange) are being described as “Birthing Pod” or “Naya Pod” decks. The problem is that the Pod itself is not the core component of the deck; they could be better described as “Bonfire Mid-range.” Most of these are running 2-3 Birthing Pods main deck, and frequently side them out entirely for game two. The primary purpose of the pod is to give these decks a way to go over the top of bigger, slower, Titan-based decks. The most important Scars block card here is Blade Splicer, since it fends off Geist of Saint Traft and provides a value body for Restoration Angel. The only real reason these are labelled “Birthing Pod” decks is to differentiate them from other Naya or GR midrange decks that aren’t bothering with the pod. Similarly with Zombie-Pod decks: the operative part of the deck is the zombie, not the pod.

The big lesson for me in this is that the success of a particular block depends on the broader context in which that block exists. None of the Scars cards I mentioned above are boring or poorly balanced; I won a ton of FNM matches with Tempered Steel, Puresteel Paladin is one of the highest rated Scars cards on Gatherer, and Birthing Pod has been consistently trundling along in not-quite-the-best standing for about sixteen months. Unfortunately, they were overshadowed by other mechanics from neighboring blocks, and I’m fairly certain they’ll be forgotten within a couple years. Some of these issues about balance and playability are development problems, and there have already been official mea culpas regarding Jace and Snapcaster Mage. If you dig deep down, however, there are two key design flaws within the block that limited Scars success: the difficulty of its mana requirements, and its overwhelming removal.

R&D builds blocks to cycle between color-light blocks like Cold Snap or Time Spiral, and color-rich blocks like Lorwyn or Shards of Alara. Scars came at a nadir of the color cycle, and the color fixing was the strictest since I started playing sanctioned Standard nine years ago. Initially in Zendikar/Scars standard, all of the available dual lands were in ally colors, but since the Mirrans vs. Phyrexians story was a Red-White versus Green-Black conflict, the mechanics tended to group towards enemy and wedge colors (especially in Mirrodin Besieged). Even though the enemy-color fetch lands were available, they could not enable something like a turn 1 Galvanic Blast into a turn 2 Puresteel Paladin, or consistently fix colors for a green-black infect deck. The lack of duals reflecting those colors hobbled the ability to make playable decks around Scars mechanics, and as a result, players tended to ignore them and build around other blocks. I can hear MaRo’s ghost saying, “But restrictions breed creaaativiteeee! (Also, I’m not dead!)” Unfortunately, those color restrictions in Standard didn’t breed creative decks; they bred consistent, ally-colored decks, so that’s what got played. By the time Innistrad block arrived with new duals and Evolving Wilds, Standard players were already locked into the existing UW vs. RG(x) dynamic. The easiest fix would have been to simply include a red-white and a black-green dual land in Mirrodin Besieged. It's a small change, but I think it would have made a huge difference.

Then there was the removal. The one thing Scars was really great at in Standard was killing stuff, and it overwhelmed many of the block’s iconic creatures. In the same way that a card like Vulshok Refugee makes red decks worse by giving them a way to fight against each other, Scars block had a deep reserve of hate for its own icons. The unfortunate Phyrexian Obliterator is the best example here: with both Dismember and Go for the Throat in Standard, the poor little guy never had a chance. Mirran Crusader is another good example. Despite looking like it should be an icon, it never stacked up against Galvanic Blast (or Lightning Bolt) or Vapor Snag. Furthermore, think about a couple removal cards that didn’t get played: Geth’s Verdict (and for the unholy love of Yawgmoth, why couldn’t they just go ahead and name it Geth’s Edict?), and Grasp of Darkness. Both of these cards have effects that are strict upgrades over cards like Diabolic Edict or Last Gasp that were standard powerhouses in their time. But neither Verdict or Grasp saw significant play during their time in standard. Again, their casting cost was an issue. But their real problem though was that the removal suite was so good that strict upgrades on fantastic cards were not good enough to be first choice. They simply were not needed.

On a brief aside, I don’t think Phyrexian mana necessarily contributed to the problem. I know Mark Rosewater mentioned hating Dismember, and the relentless pounding of Dismembers and Gut Shots in the past year has been frustrating for some players, but I blame that on Snapcaster Mage. It’s not something wrong within the block.

I’m not satisfied with blaming the bounty of removal on development. I think the design team apparently approached the block with a mind set of “This is a war! We have to make cards that are great at destroying things!” without necessarily considering, “Wait, how well will our creatures work if we’re going to kill them all?”

Black versus the Planeswalkers

One final topic I want to touch on is how R&D thought about controlling planeswalkers. I think it became apparent pretty quickly that creature based answers like Hex Parasite didn’t cut it. This was something that we discussed here pretty extensively with our version of Murder, with different iterations of “Destroy target creature or planeswalker,” which at the time was not well-loved. So I feel vindicated (in the good way, not the arg-you-blew-up-my-Ancient-Tomb way) by Dreadbore (it’s over in the Ravnica spoilers if you haven’t seen them yet). I know I said I wasn't going to talk about previews, but I want a moment to gush. Making Dreadbore a rare was the perfect fix for the issue of hosing mythics in limited using uncommon removal, and I wish I’d thought of it. Still, I feel like it’s good positive reinforcement, since it shows that at least sometimes we’re on the same track as the pros in R&D.

*Edit Note: Several commenters have correctly noted that Solemn Simulacrum was not reprinted in Scars. Metaghost made the same catch in the first draft. I removed part of a longer paragraph about it, but forgot to remove the other reference. Props also to Jenesis, for noting that it was Cloudpost, not Glimmerpost, that was banned in Modern.


  1. Great article - especially the analysis of Scars cutting short its potential icons. The one quick note would be that Solemn was printed in M12, not Scars.

  2. I believe Solemn Simulacrum was in M12, not Scars block. But I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. Very well done!

  3. Just as a note, I had actually caught the Simulacrum error before Dan published this, but I think he decided that adjusting that paragraph to reflect Simulacrum's actual heritage wasn't worth the effort, as the overall point was still clear.

    And thinking back on it, I'm a little confused as to why it was reprinted in M12 (post-Scars) and not M11 as an October-set seed. I guess they just didn't want to further feed Valakut while it still had a full year and change before rotation?

    1. Yeah, I flubbed the corrections :P

      And I'm pretty sure you correctly identified the reason Sad Robot didn't show up in M11. Remember, Destructive Force was also in M11, and I think the developers were afraid of a Wildfire-style mana advantage deck taking over.

  4. Glimmerpost was never broken nor banned. The offender is Cloudpost, from the original Mirrodin.

    1. Yes, thanks for the banning correction.

      I'm not sure I agree that Cloudpost was the original offender. Obviously, once Glimmerpost was printed and set up the 12-post combo, Cloudpost became a huge issue. But if Glimmerpost was never printed, I think Cloudpost could have been a fair card (it was very powerful in its Extended, but I'm not sure if that would have held up in Modern).

      If I remember right, one of the R&D writers mentioned that Glimmerpost was designed before Modern was considered as a format. At that point, it was considered safe for Legacy and would never meet Cloudpost in the revised Extended, so it wasn't really tested.

  5. Thanks for this neat analysis, Dan.

    I'd like to hear more about your first point, Telling Stories with Color. Why do you think segmenting factions by color makes for a better story?

    Do you think that conflicts at all with your next point, "The reason is the ability to have three neighboring players in the same color, yet pursuing three completely different deck types?"

    1. Segmenting factions by colors makes it easier to clearly communicate who's on which team, which in turn makes it easier to set up the story's heroes and villains.

      I think it may actually make it easier to build different draft plans into a format. Let's say you have a block with GW enchantresses fighting UB artificers over control of Mountain Land. If you seed red with a few auras, a few metalcraft cards, and a few undecided cards that just like other red stuff, you set up a guy playing mono-red, passing auras to the player building an aura deck, passing the metalcraft cards to the guy building the artifact deck. Add a cool secondary theme for Green and Blue (Beasts vs Mutants!), and you now have a range of different draft patterns with non-overlapping limited cards in the same color (ie, you now have GW, UB, BR, RG, UR, WR, UG, mono-R as potentially viable plans).

    2. Cool. That all makes sense.

      So, is the only thing off-limits a five-color faction? One with, effectively, no color identity?

    3. If you were doing a block with Slivers, you'd have a 5-color identity faction.

      You could also think about something like the Eldrazi as a no-color faction.

  6. Thanks for catching the assorted errors gang; I added a note to the original post.

  7. This is the weirdest article. It's mostly about Development stuff like crafting limited and making cards for different formats? Wouldn't a design article talk about the mechanics from the set in retrospect? Talk about Poison's late rotation boon, or Metalcraft's shallow impact. Or something designy? Also it could be interesting to look at how design dovetails into the block that follows it. But it was a very indepth and interesting article.

  8. I'm not sure those ARE purely development concerns anymore. Part of the changing focus from "Research and Development" to "Research and Design" is that the design team needs to start thinking very early on about how its cards work, which in turn means thinking about the formats where they exist. I don't think it's good enough any more just to say, "Well, here are the mechanics and pet cards we like. Get to it developers!"

    1. For example, check out the Aaron Forysthe "Between Ravnicas" talk you on youtube. One of the things he mentions about Shards is that design was split up into "mini-teams" on each shard. They each built a strong identity around some pretty cool mechanics, but cards like Etherium Sculptor didn't play well outside its own faction.

      Nich, I think you would say that's a development issue, but I think the real problem was not enough communication among the design team.

      For Scars block, I want to take it another step and say there wasn't enough communication between the different design teams for the different sets.