Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Deconstructing Theros: Heroic

Theros is focused on three major groups from classical mythology: gods, monsters, and heroes. We've already discussed enchantment creatures and Monstrosity; today, I'd like to talk about Heroic. All cards in this post have been officially previewed by Wizards.


Heroic in an Enchantment Set

Let's talk about Heroic's role as a support mechanic for Theros' enchantment theme. Lots of enchantments means lots of auras. Although auras are a popular card type, skilled players have avoided them for much of the game's history. "Don't play any Enchant Creatures," they'd tell people at their first prerelease or FNM, "they're a sure way to get 2-for-1ed."

Granted, things have changed substantially in the last few years. Auras have gotten better: Ethereal Armor was a force to be reckoned with in Return to Ravnica limited, and Rancor has made quite a splash in constructed. Reliable, cheap removal is harder to come by: Doom Blade was first replaced by Murder, then brought back as an uncommon, and Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile are out of the picture. But the fundamental problem is unchanged. Pumping up your own creatures with auras is still begging for card disadvantage.

In an enchantment-themed set, however, auras need to be actually good, not just fun. Thus, the designers need ways to mitigate the inherent card disadvantage of auras. A few years ago, Totem Armor was their answer. Today's answers are Bestow and Heroic. Heroic grants a bonus for casting an aura spell even if your creature is removed in response. In particular, most of the Heroic effects we've seen (and I suspect most of them, period) are designed to work through a Doom Blade.

Of course, Heroic will trigger for any spell you cast on your own creature, not just auras. But in a set like Theros, you can bet your last drachma that this mechanic is intended to help auras shine.

Heroic-type Mechanics and Incidental Rewards

More broadly, Heroic is what I would call an active incidental reward mechanic. That is to say, it has the form:
Whenever you take action X, some desirable effect Y happens.
In the above formulation, X is necessarily an action that you might choose to take even without the promise of Y, which is what makes the reward incidental. (This distinguishes such mechanics from kicker-esque mechanics, where the player is incurring some extra cost to make Y happen.)

The reason I'm bothering to invent terminology for this class of mechanics is that R&D makes lots of them! Just in the last few years, we've seen Battalion, Evolve, Cipher, Transform, Exalted, and Battle Cry. Why are there so many?

There are two major reasons. First, needing to take action X provides direction for the player, both during the game and in deckbuilding. Want to flip your Villagers of Estwald? Spend a turn pumping that Darkthicket Wolf instead of casting a spell. Want to helix some fools with Firemane Avenger? Better bring a Skyknight Legionnaire or Act of Treason for a surprise third attacker. Heroic creatures will make positive auras and combat tricks substantially more valuable in Theros.

Second, the times when an active incidental reward mechanic will trigger are hard to predict. When you cast something like Goblin Assault or Ajani's Mantra, both players know exactly what these cards will do in the future. But how many tokens will an Akroan Crusader make? How big will a Wingsteed Rider get? The opponent certainly doesn't know, and even the player only has partial information. Every card they draw could be an aura or combat trick that yields an additional bonus. This sort of randomness is why lotteries and slot machines (and their game relatives, such as Candy Crush Saga and Peggle) are so addictive. Finding out "How good can this get for me?" is compelling and makes people eager to play more.


  1. I like your categorization, "active incidental reward," and I'm curious to see an attempt to classify all/most mechanics some day.

    Heroic is a distinctly light-handed solution for an enchantment set; it doesn't have the words 'aura' or 'enchantment' anywhere in it. It also works just as well with sorceries, and even better with instants. But I think it's a great fit for Theros because—and this is important—Theros isn't just "the enchantment block."

    It's possible it started that way and was later fit into the Grecian mold because enchantment creatures feel otherworldly, dot dot dot. It's also possible they started with the theme of Ancient Greece and stumbled upon enchantments as an important expression of that theme. MaRo will tell us, but it doesn't matter:

    Either way, Theros is more about the epic struggle between mortals and gods and monsters that threaten them. It's about the legendary heroism that mortals show in the face of impossibly powerful enemies. Yes, this mechanic supports the mechanical theme of auras, but it's more important that it supports the dramatic theme and will create exciting moments, games and stories.

    Players love to boost their creatures, and make swingy plays. Auras and tricks make that possible, and this active incidental reward doubles down on that fun, while simultaneously mitigating (if only slightly) the risk of doing so.

    My guess (and I could be very wrong) is that we'll see more sorcery-speed removal than instant-speed in this set as another subtle way to allow this kind of fun to flourish.

    1. Thanks! I might try a post on classification of mechanics sometime.

      Re: instant vs. sorcery speed removal, the scale is actually already tipped towards sorcery. I went through the M14 commons to check.

      Instants: 4
      Celestial Flare
      Chandra's Outrage
      Wring Flesh

      Sorceries and Enchantments: 6
      Hunt the Weak
      Liturgy of Blood
      Quag Sickness

      But perhaps the ratio will tip even further from instants in Theros. Or there will be fewer removal spells, or they'll be more expensive, or moved to uncommon.

  2. When I first read heroic, I thought it triggered off of both your spells and your opponents' spells, which was neat because it meant these creatures would rise to the occasion when you ask them to, as well as when challenged. Here, MaRo very briefly explains how that changed between Design and Development:

  3. I've designed almost the same mechanic as Heroic. Once, I was working on a legendary-themed set for myself and I thought that one way to show the Legends being heroic was if they spammed cool combat tricks all day. So I made a lot of creatures with "whenever this creature becomes targeted, [BONUS]" triggers to incentivize that. I called it "Resourcefulness." I also had a lot of Auras in the set to show people turning into Heroes, and these triggers incentivized casting those Auras on your creatures while discouraging opponents from removing the creatures in response.

    Later, during the GDS2, I suggested the mechanic for Jonathan Woodward's Golamo set (during the round that Devon Rule was designing for Golamo), since Golamo also had an Aura theme. Devon deleted ideas that he chose not to use in order to keep his workspace manageable, so it's gone now, but it should be in the archives somewhere.

    I also proposed this mechanic for Daniel William's Western-themed set (Deadsands), since creature combat would feel fast-paced and unpredictable like a gunfight if there were a lot of Instant tricks flying around. For Deadsands, I renamed it Reflex.


    In my Legendary set, I had a lot of Instant/Land split cards so that decks can pack a lot of combat tricks. I suggested the same thing for Deadsands.


    Most recently, I suggested the mechanic as a replacement for Hexproof in Goblin Artisans's fan M13 set, where it was finally adopted. Here, the bonuses were fixed at "Whenever this becomes targeted, draw a card." I felt that getting a reward for what you wanted to do anyways (targeting your own creatures with pump) was fun. It made Auras more playable, just like Hexproof. But unlike Hexproof, the opponent could remove the creature in response if the opponent really wanted to, albeit at a severe cost. (Unlike the normal situation involving Auras and Removal, it's the player casting the Removal that gets the card disadvantage.)

    The similarity between my mechanic and Heroic might be accidental. Dabbling in fan card design, I've definitely experienced a lot of coincidental designs. But if my mechanic had anything to do with Heroic, it would mean a lot to me since it means I contributed an idea to Magic (which is part of what the GDS2 wiki was about). If not, I'm simply glad to have come up the same mechanic as something that appeared in a real set.