Friday, August 30, 2013

Deconstructing Theros: Monstrosity

PAX Prime is about to commence, and with it a deluge of information regarding the upcoming fall set will be presented at WotC's various PAX presentations and parties. Of course, quite a bit has already been revealed through official sources, and even more has filtered through everyone's favorite rumormongers. Jay has begun the process of taking a critical eye towards the design of Theros with his piece on Enchantment Creatures, and I'm going to continue things by taking an in-depth look at the aptly-named keyword-thing Monstrosity. To those concerned with being spoiled about content coming from unofficial sources, my analysis will be focused on the known monsters — Polukranos, World Eater; Shipbreaker Kraken; and Ember Swallower — with reference to other revealed cards (like Ordeal of Purphoros.

So let's get into it.

When Polukranos was first spoiled alongside Anax and Cymede a few days prior to the official unveiling of Heroes vs. Monsters, I was skeptical to say the least. I saw many comments voicing concern regarding the color-pie implications of a green creature dealing direct damage without using the fight mechanic, but to me it simply looked a bit too much like the sort of overly busy handiwork that the amateur design community is known for. Scanning from the top: there's an activated ability with a variable cost (ok), which is used to activate a keyword of some sort (sure), which itself has a modular appendage (it happens) and not only defines a new status for the creature (what?) but confers a number of +1/+1 counters onto the creature (well, it is a hydra…), and all of this information is then filtered into a triggered ability that is more or less taken from Living Inferno. Viewed in piecemeal, the isolated components of Polukranos are perfectly rational, but once strung together into a Rube Goldberg device they become almost comical; it's like if Transform had been introduced to the world via Huntmaster of the Fells, obscuring the core idea with one dramatic flourish too many.

Another terrifying product of Aaron Forsythe's mythic madness?
Alas, the World Eater is real, and the subsequent pair of monsters revealed (Ember Swallower and Shipbreaker Kraken) are only marginally less complex. Of course, this complexity is not truly the fault of Monstrosity, in the sense that should a card simply have Monstrosity it would be relatively easy to grok, albeit a touch less stable in terms of gameplay. This is because Monstrosity on its own is a form of post-casting kicker (or you could think of it as Echo-with-upside-and-at-your-leisure) that technically only ever does one thing: it adds +1/+1 counters equal to the Monstrosity modifier. That's easy enough to understand; however, because keywording Jenara, Asura of War's ability doesn't quite achieve the goal of distinguishing these creatures as being terrifying monsters (and because a plethora of creatures capable of unbounded growth is undoubtedly problematic for development), Monstrosity has that curious bit of reminder text:

If this creature isn't monstrous, put X +1/+1 counters on it and it becomes monstrous.

In other words, the ability is intended as having but a single use, and to ensure that it can be only used once, Monstrosity initiates a state change that is defined by whether or not you've resolved an activation of Monstrosity. Which sounds almost tautological (like saying a monster is monstrous if it's monstrous) and hard to convey in a game that uses static artwork and regularly places +1/+1 counters onto things. One possible alternative could have been to reserve the usage of +1/+1 counters in the world of Theros exclusively to convey Monstrosity transformations, but we know that they chose to avoid such an extreme as evident by the previously mentioned Ordeal of Purphoros. This is likely a concession to the reality that just because Theros might have reserved +1/+1 counters for such a purpose, that doesn't mean that such counter-complications will never arise should these monsters find a place in Standard (or beyond) — hypothetical arguments over the source of +1/+1 counters in a deck with Scavenge, Evolve, Give//Take, and Monsters is one particularly clear (or unclear) example.

Presumably aware that tracking whether a monster is monstrous or just artificially enhanced, the game state is preserved by tying each (revealed) monster's transformation to a particular noticeable event that will not only be hard to forget happened, but that may result in the death of the monster (as it is with Polukranos). This is a clever solution that enhances the flavorful execution of the mechanic, but doing so yields at least a pair of negative consequences that make it difficult to transfer Monstrosity to lower rarities. For one, you're more likely to create the dense and labyrinthine text boxes of Shipbreaker Kraken and Polukranos than you are something like Ember Swallower, especially if you aim for flavor over pure function. And secondly, even should you amass an array of concisely dramatic events, are they suitable for common?

Some might point to the existence of Ulamog's Crusher (and company) as evidence that Monstrosity can and will appear at lower rarities, and I agree, as I think the flavor of Theros needs common monsters just as much — if not more — than the flavor of Zendikar needed common Eldrazi. But will common monsters mirror the construction of their more elusive brethren? If they don't, how will they solve the quandary of game state preservation? If they do, what sort of "concisely dramatic" triggers are suitable?

I'm going to end this with a brief review of some possible lesser monsters, and hopefully folks in the comments can take a stab it and debate the merits of the different constructions.

Crash of Catoblepta
Creature - Catoblepas (U)
3GG: Monstrosity 3 (If this creature isn't monstrous, put 3 +1/+1 counters on it and it becomes monstrous.)
When Crash of Catoblepta becomes monstrous, put a 3/3 green Beast token creature onto the battlefield.

By using token creatures as a secondary, tangible indicator of the monstrous transformation, it would seem that surely no one could forget that the Catoblepta had transformed. Except creatures die real easily, and token creatures even moreso. Moreover, the design just leads to a constriction, similar to that of +1/+1 counters, regarding how many cards in the format can produce 3/3 Beast tokens.

Terrifying Cyclops
Creature - Cyclops (C)
2RR: Monstrosity 2 (If this creature isn't monstrous, put 2 +1/+1 counters on it and it becomes monstrous.)
When Terrifying Cyclops becomes monstrous, return target creature you don't control to its owner's hand.

As with the rare monsters, making the trigger impact the monster's opponents better ensures that the event is remembered. Also, note that these triggers are not optional, as the rules need to be set up such that at the tournament level players are being very careful about observing the execution of their monstrosity triggers. That said, what if the opponent doesn't control any creatures? You would hope that just means the game will be over quickly, or that Terrifying Cyclops is about to get a face full of Doom Blade, but it's still something to consider.

Let's try a monster sans trigger:

Hungry Hungry Hippocamp
Creature - Hippocamp (C)
4UU: Monstrosity 4 (If this creature isn't monstrous, put 4 +1/+1 counters on it and it becomes monstrous.)
If Hungry Hungry Hippocamp is monstrous, it has islandwalk. (Creatures with islandwalk can't be blocked as long as the defending player controls an island.)

How small can monsters be in their base states before they stop feeling like monsters? Are these lesser transformations sufficiently conveying that "next level" of monsterdom that the rare monsters do so well? Should they?



  1. No idea why they didn't just use (If this creature has no +1/+1 counters on it, do stuff). I guess "when this creature becomes monstrous" was too cool sounding?

    But I'm pretty certain R&D playtested it and determined it's not too complex. Adding (and especially removing) large numbers of +1/+1 doesn't happen that often anyway. Unless we see small Monstrosity numbers like 1G: Monstrosity 1, it shouldn't be a big problem.

    1. While it's neat that scavenging onto your otherwise-leashed Rakdos Drake unleashes it, it's not fun. It's a feel bad moment where you wish you had just unleashed it in the first place, or that you could get your +1/+1 counter back now.

      The monstrous status avoids those nonbos and feel bad moments. It's very true that it does so at the cost of adding things to remember, and that is a non-zero cost, but it's not like they left us to fend for ourselves. The fact that becoming monstrous is always associated with +1/+1 counters means that we'll be able to see which cards are monstrous at least 9 out of 10 times just by seeing which ones have counters on them.
      Really, the only way you're going to get confused is in a board-stalled game where you have multiple monsters and have cast more than one ordeal on those creatures.

    2. Just to be perfectly explicit, the core of this article is not "did R&D even test this?", it's:

      "R&D definitely tested this, and it appears that they came to certain conclusions which influenced the inclusion of supplemental triggers and likely had an impact on the design of Theros on the whole."

      After watching a significant amount of Magic coverage over the past year, I've realized how important it is to never assume something like "adding large numbers of +1/+1 counters happens so infrequently that of course this will be ok." I mean, apparently one of the biggest sources of judge calls at GP Oakland was because everyone kept assuming Enlarge works exactly like Revenge of the Hunted.

      So this article is basically about how Ordeal of Purphoros prevents the existence of something like:

      Cerberus Pup
      Creature - Cerberus (U)
      3RR: Monstrosity 3
      When CARDNAME becomes monstrous, it deals 3 damage to target creature or player.

      That's a very obvious example of the sort of thing I'm hoping this article will get people to think about.

    3. I agree that matching both a creature's Monstrosity number and its triggered effect to a single Ordeal is something one should definitely avoid putting these two mechanics together in the same block.

  2. I made a similar mechanic for Jonathan Woodward's Golamo set in the Great Designer Search 2. It was called Doublesize.

    The effect was: "Put a hugeness counter on this creature. Its power and toughness are doubled as long as it has a hugeness counter on it." The idea of a one-time boost was the same. Using +1/+1 counters would have been simpler and better, but at the time I was thinking it might not feel distinct enough as an effect.

    Because Golamo was a set about mana geysers that transformed ordinary animals to enormous size, I made the activation cost "Return two lands you control to your hand:" to represent the Geysers. I thought that the tempo hit in return for huge size was interesting game play.

    So there were cards like:
    Spider 2GG
    Doublesize (Return two lands you control to your hand: Put a a hugeness counter on this creature. Its power and toughness are doubled as long as it has a hugeness counter on it.)

    It was during the switch-up rounds were Devon Rule was handling Golamo. He had a work style of deleting ideas submitted to him that he saw and chose not to use, so it's gone now, but it's in the archives somewhere.

    The similarity with monstrous is probably accidental. I don't know if Wizards members were able to see doublesize before it was deleted. If it had something to do with monstrous, I would be happy, as contributing to future ideas is part of what the GDS2 wiki was about. If not, I'm glad to have simply come up with a similar mechanic as it shows I was on the right track.

  3. Most fans of the site will already be familiar with the Terror of Misthaven post which I reblogged shortly before Monstrosity was revealed. In it, we explored numerous mechanics to represent creatures so big or so inhuman that their exact size isn't known until they clash with something that could actually challenge them.

    Monstrosity doesn't have that unknown factor, but it's strikingly similar regardless. Making the activation/trigger condition the expenditure of mana is such a simple solution, I'm embarrassed I didn't think of it. The very first comment in that chain, by Zefferal, is functionally nearly identical Monstrosity. Again, just with more mystery.

  4. I am not sure that every instance of Monstrous will come with a triggered ability. A Monstrous (french) vanilla creature seems like a reasonable common to me; the memory issues just aren't that bad.

    1. My money's on

      Monstrous Bear 1G
      2G: Monstrosity 2

      But it could be anything (and I'm guessing there will be multiple monstrous commons). In some ways, you can think of this mechanic like Echo or Morph in the sense that the total cost to cast it is split between two turns.

    2. I'll concede that the memory issues aren't that bad — that's mostly just a foundation to examine the mechanic based on the evidence we have.

      But there are other arguments against french vanilla Monstrosities.

      For instance, in terms of "selling" the mechanic, does making the french vanilla Monstrosity diminish the marketing impact of the keyword? On its own, Monstrosity is just pump; it doesn't have the dramatic effect that Annihilator had in isolation. How many Levelers were just dudes that got bigger? 0. They all gained at least one additional ability.

      In terms of flavor, is there a power-threshold for declaring "monstrous"? Can a creature with 4-power (like Jay's hypothetical Monstrous Bear) truly be described as monstrous? If not, what is the threshold and how does the design of Theros accommodate that threshold in its structure of common creatures? (I'm assuming 6-power is the minimum scale for "monstrousness".)

    3. Good point about Level Up. I could definitely imagine common Monsters gaining trample/flying/vigilance.

      I think 5 is the fatty cutoff; see Naya, for example.

    4. Did Villagers of Estwald, Grizzled Outcast or Tormented Pariah sully the attractiveness of Transform?

      There probably is a cut-off.

    5. Monstrosity is an interesting ability on its own. Rootwalla is a really good card and makes for interesting decisions on both sides of the field. Monstrosity is a Rootwalla that never exhales.

    6. That's true, but I will argue that Transform was mind-blowing for a grand portion of the Magic playing community and cards possessing two sides carried a certain amount of marketing cache all on their, even if that transformation essentially amounted to: "this creature doubles in size."

      Regardless, I don't truly think that's a significant component to how they might make such a decision, but in terms of thinking critically, it's important to exhaust every angle.

      Like I said in the article, it honestly surprises me that Polukranos was our first monster, as it really does obscure the ultimate simplicity of Monstrosity — is there something that can be read into that decision?

    7. I thought that was an interesting choice too. I'm not convinced it's because Polukranos is the most exciting monster; I think they chose it because it gave us the least information about the mechanic, as an outlier.

    8. Hydras are possibly the most distinctively Greek of all monsters.

  5. I doubt they'll do it in this set, but since Monstrosity is an action keyword, it's not necessarily tied to a mana activation and could be tied to a trigger. Perhaps in the block we'll see "When this becomes blocked, Monstrosity N" or something.

  6. CARDNAME has trample as long as its monstrous.

  7. I'm counting on a 1/1 Squirrel with Monstrous 7.