Thursday, September 12, 2013

Deconstructing Theros: Devotion

Alternate title: Why Chroma was a bad mechanic, but Devotion will be good.

Chroma was pretty much a dud when it debuted in Eventide. It was certainly not as beloved as Persist/Wither, but probably more popular than the untap symbol. Still, a mechanic needs a stronger recommendation than "more popular than the untap symbol" to get a second shot. The success of individual cards like Primalcrux and Light from Within suggests that perhaps the problem wasn't with Chroma itself. Perhaps the execution was flawed. Devotion is an improvement on Chroma in three crucial aspects: flavor, consistency, and as-fan support.

Oh, I understand the flavor now!
No, wait. I don't.
Chroma had no particular flavor. There was a major "color matters" mechanical theme in Shadowmoor and Eventide, but the flavor connection was sorely lacking. If anyone can explain to me why Glen Elendra Liege pumps up Noggles and Selkies, I'll eat my hat. Devotion, however, has extremely clear flavor: it measures your commitment to a god or to that god's general domain. Simply changing the name of the mechanic goes a long way towards making it seem natural.

In terms of mechanical consistency, Chroma was a hot mess. It counted mana symbols on cards, but which cards? Maybe it counted them on all permanents you control. Or just on a creature you're sacrificing. Or on each creature separately. Or on some cards you reveal from your hand. Or the top ten cards of your library. Or your entire graveyard. 

Mechanics shouldn't work like this! Whenever you have an effect of the form, "Look at A, and depending on that, do B," the cardinal rule is that A should not vary. B should vary. For example, consider Allies, Battalion, or Metalcraft. They all take the same input each time (play an Ally, attack with three creatures) and create variable results. It is much easier for our brains to pay attention to one input than to many. When you're checking for Metalcraft, all you have to do is look for three artifacts; similarly, to find Devotion to a color, you just need to count mana symbols on your permanents.

"All right, I'm forcing mono-white goats
this draft," said nobody ever.
Perhaps the biggest failing of Chroma was that it was unsupported. As a linear mechanic, it needed a significant as-fan presence to be viable in limited and casual constructed. But Chroma appeared on one -- count 'em, one-- common! There was only a single blue card with Chroma. Sure, you could run Sanity Grinding in a deck full of the appropriate Demigods or Lieges, but there just wasn't enough incentive to get chromatic.

And now? We've already seen a healthy number of Devotion cards. They're mostly at higher rarities so far, but that's the nature of previews. I'd bet the farm that Gray Merchant of Asphodel will not be the sole common Devotion card. And let's not forget that we'll have an entire block's worth of room, rather than a single cramped small set.

With all these factors going in its favor, will Devotion be popular? I certainly think so. The Gods are clearly the centerpiece of Theros, and players will enjoy building around them. Linear themes by color have always been popular with a certain segment of the player base, as evinced by the continual reincarnations of the Ivory Cup / Angel's Feather / Staff of the Sun Magus cycle. Hybrid cards such as Boros Reckoner and Burning-Tree Emissary will play well with it. It's not a game-changer mechanic like Evolve or Transform that creates an entirely new play experience, but that's hardly a strike against it. Sometimes, doing one thing simply is enough.


  1. Well said.

    In terms of room for growth, "devotion to green and/or red" seems imminently plausible, and "devotion to" any identifiable type of mana seems possible. "Devotion to phyrexia," counting phyrexian mana symbols, seems terrifying and awesome as long as WotC is willing to bring that mechanic back. In contrast, "devotion to generic mana" just isn't going to happen; flavor fail.

    1. I'm not even sure devotion has to be connected to symbols in the mana costs of permanents; keywords and reminder text of the past have proven modular enough that they could reasonably do:

      Devotion to Artifacts (Each artifact among permanents you control counts towards your devotion to artifacts.)

      Is that necessarily a probable path that they'll take? I don't think so, as it would start to blur devotion with other mechanical identities of the past, but it is something they could do should devotion prove to be popular medium through which to deliver such counting-based mechanics.

    2. I'm not sure about "green and/or red", because it's not obvious how that interacts with hybrid.

      Devotion to Phyrexia would be a perfect fit.

      I don't see any additional applications off the top of my head. Devotion to [noun]s seems a tad too generic for the keyword.

    3. Well, we already know that the small sets are going to have the multicolor gods, so Devotion to G/R seems like a natural evolution; what else would those Gods have Devotion to? I'm sure the templating team found a good way to make it less confusing. (Maybe even Hybrid? Devotion to {R/G}?

    4. Hm, that's a good point. I suppose they must have found a solution, unless the minor deities are fundamentally different templates.

    5. "Devotion to Green plus Devotion to Red" is a lot more clearer.

    6. Devotion to {RG} could work:

      Devotion to red and green (Each {R}, {G} and {RG} in the mana costs of permanents you control counts toward your devotion to red and green.)

      "Devotion to Green plus Devotion to Red" is clearer, but it also means that Burning-Tree Emissary counts as 4 despite being free.

  2. I was drinking a glass of water, and some water came out of my nose when I read "I'll force mono-white goats" comment...

  3. The flavorlessness of Chroma is a good point. I've often wondered why Tribal sets are more exciting to me than Color matters sets, and felt that the lack of flavor in the past Color-matters implementations must be it.

  4. I think Devotion is in fact a game-changer mechanic that affects gameplay; it changes how you make decisions in the game. If your opponent has a God in play, you can point your removal to creatures that help turn it on (rather than what you would target in a vacuum). When you're playing with a God, it affects your decisions of whether to trade away a creature or not because that would affect your devotion count.

    I guess Devotion is one of the more interactive (and thus better) types of Chroma since it's intertwined with any decisions that affect the board state.

    1. True, it is a bit of a game-changer. I see it as closer to tribal or Metalcraft than something truly wacky like Transform.