Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Deconstructing Theros: Bestow

Let's examine bestow, the new creature/aura mechanic in Theros.

Spoilers Ahead:

One of the very first things a person does when absorbing a new idea is to compare it to the things she already knows. For Magic players grokking bestow, the two most obvious comparisons are the Licids from Tempest block and the living weapons from New Phyrexia. WotC was happier about the comparison to the popular mechanic and less so the ugly, complicated one, and rightly so.

The obvious difference between bestow creatures and Licids are that Licids always start as creatures but can flip back and forth between creature and aura many times, while bestow creatures can only flip from aura to creature, only once, and only if you waited to cast it as an aura. The important difference is that bestow has a number of subtle play limitations that avoid many of the confusing rules questions Licids evoke.

I've mocked up what Calming Licid would look like in the modern frame with the latest Oracle text to compare it with Leafcrown Dryad. Perhaps surprisingly, bestow is a textier mechanic, but the language is also more accessible and the overall mechanic leads to a card that's much simpler to process in play. Not only can Leafcrown Dryad not change states simply by tapping, but when it does, you don't have to think about the other state at all, because it's exactly the same as what the aura did. This is a huge win.

Living Weapon is the closer comparison because both mechanics are essentially, "Here's a card that normally needs another creature to do anything, but this one comes with its own."

I think I've seen people claim that they're too similar, but for my money they're not because they each travel in opposite directions: For living weapon, you get the creature first and the equipment later. Bestow (when you use it) gives you the aura first and the creature later. That you can skip the aura phase entirely gives you another mode with no analog in living weapon.

To explain how much I love this solution, I have to make a final comparison that only fans of Magic Design will recognize. Bestow is the end-result of the Manifest/Incarnate exploration that started (perhaps) with the GDS2. What we were looking for was a way to make auras a little better by mitigating the problem of drawing one when you have no creatures to cast it on. Bestow delivers exactly that.

Jonathan Woodward's version let you cast your aura on a free 0/0 token and is functionally indistinguishable from living weapon, beyond the obvious aura/equipment difference. I don't know if they got the idea from him or not, but he and the community that helped with that idea can be proud they found one of the very best solutions regardless. My version piggybacks off of morph technology and is much less elegant, though not completely devoid of merit: It feels nice to put your 'useless' cards to good use, and starting at 2/2 opens up a few more design paths for the cards.

What makes bestow so clever is that they flipped the problem on its head and attacked it from an angle we never considered. Instead of finding a way to make an aura into a creature, they found a way to make a creature into an aura. The result just feels natural and it's Wizards' ability to tackle problems in such novel ways that continues to impress me with every set. The fact that bestow simultaneously expands on the enchantment creatures Theros had already settled on, while solving the not-enough-space-for-auras problem is just brilliant.

I can't close this examination without addressing the fact that a bestow aura becomes a creature instead of going to the graveyard when its target disappears before resolution. Obviously, that's a great thing because it cancels one of the biggest drawbacks of auras. What's unfortunate is that the reminder text doesn't allude to that fact at all, and players who know that normal auras die this way will assume bestow auras do too… until told otherwise. Wizards has defended the incomplete reminder text by pointing out that it's not the first keyword that you have to read the rules to fully understand, and that casual players will assume it works because they assume everything works, while experienced players are all tapped into the data stream and will have heard the clarification before the Prerelease. They may be completely right, or only partly right, but I still feel like the ball was dropped. It's a tiny ball, mind you, and not remotely a big deal, but when you're performing on the level that Wizards is, you're playing a game of inches. It's ridiculously rare that R&D makes a sizeable mistake (relative to the amount of product they produce), so if they're going to find ways to improve, most of them are going to be tiny. I'm sure some folks at Wizards haven't dismissed the concern about bestow's reminder text, and hopefully that'll push the next product from 99.01% flawless to 99.02%.


  1. I personally am really excited to play with bestow. the only thing to see is what becomes of the mechanic. understandably, so far the ability has been costed into oblivion and the only "wow" card is the first one spoiled. even so, with the inherent card advantage of bestow and the clearly slow format which is unraveling in theros, perhaps spending six mana for +2/+2 and first strike will be a playable card.

    1. The common bestow cards are a lot like Kavu Titan. When you have a bunch of mana , you'll get enough additional value out of them to make them well worth it, but holding onto them until then will often be wrong, and playing them on-curve will not happen as much as it should.

  2. "What's unfortunate is that the reminder text doesn't allude to that fact at all"

    I agree. Until seeing the tentative Comp Rules update on Tabak's tumblr, I had misunderstood some R&D comments to say the "using doom blade to 2-1 auras" trick still worked with Bestow auras.

  3. Whats crazy is that I created Manifest a year before the GDS2, and leading up to the GDS2, I posted the mechanic to my wiki page. This was the design I posted:

    Living Breath 1R
    Enchantment - Aura (Common)
    Enchanted creature has: "R: +1/+0 until theend of turn"
    Manifest 2R (You may play this spell for its manifest cost. If you do, put a 1/1 essence creature token into play with Living Breath attached to it)

    Both Devon Rule and Jonathan Woodward used the mechanic in their top 8 submissions. Devon used the mechanic word from word basically, calling it Manifest, and creating a 2/2 instead of a 1/1. Jonathan improved the design creating a 0/0 token, and renaming it incarnate.

    The best part was that even more people used it! Check MaRo's comment below:


    "Manifest is an interesting mechanic. So interesting actually that it was used more by any design test than any other mechanic."

    Sadly I missed passing the test by one question, but it was nice to see one of my babies make it through! haha.

  4. It's crazy that Golamo at one point had received proposals for mechanics similar to three of Theros's mechanics! There was Ant's awesome Manifest + my version of Heroic and Monstrous.

    That said, it's hard to tell if the Theros mechanics were influenced by GDS2 mechanics or not. What Bestow reminds me the most of is Griffin Guide and Elephant Guide.

    I remember MaRo saying something about Living Weapon... I don't remember exactly but I think he was responding to players on the question of whether Living Weapon was influenced by Manifest or not. He said that the idea of a creature enhancer that can provide its own token to enhance was an idea that has been around for a long time, but was waiting for a place to be used.

    The same can be said for my mechanics. Maybe they were low-hanging fruit, and it may have been more a question of what set theme they can be used to reinforce. Even if that turns out to be the case, it still feels awesome to have parallelly suggested a version of something that made it into print.

  5. I love the look of the bestow mechanic, but the bestow costs are very painful looking. Leafcrown Dryad is the most reasonable, but everything else has bestow costs of 5+, mostly 6+. The comparison of Griffin Guide to Nimbus Naiad is particularly painful. Is the drop in rarity and the increased resilience to 2-for-1s worth 2 extra mana?

    1. Bestow should cost a lot at common because it's a two-for-one, and the game changes for the worse with a lot of efficient card advantage. Certainly, some of the cards look worse than similar precursors like Griffin Guide and Knightly Valor, but both of those cards were /really/ good and I still intend to play the just pretty good versions.