Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Artifical Constraints

[Wizards of the Coast safe]

When we last left Tesla a couple of weeks ago, we were discussing mechanics that encourage playing artifacts in a different way than Magic has before. You delivered a plethora of options, but I'm not going to be discussing any of them in detail just yet. Today's topic is closely related and ought to have come first.

Riddle me this: what is an artifact?

That's Easy!

They're those colorless permanents.

Okay, maybe they're defined by tapping for effects.

Or, uh, have activated abilities of some kind.

Okay, well at least they have a continuing impact on the board, right?

Okay, sure, but I'm picking and choosing my examples. Magic breaks its own rules all the time. How many of these are emblematic of real identity crises? To answer that I want to take you all the way back to the start.

In the Beginning

It used to be that artifacts came in three types:

(Or four if you count artifact creatures)

94% of them have continuing impact on the board.
72% have "activations" (they weren't clearly delineated back then).
100% of them are colorless.
And perhaps surprisingly, 100% of them care about being tapped.

Back in the day artifacts' abilities turned off when they were tapped.

Of course, most players haven't been playing since Alpha, so rather than prescribe our future decisions based on nostalgia, we should figure out where artifacts should go in the future.

One Step Forward...

That hasn't always been how the decisions were made. Back in Mirrodin design R&D was considering consolidating artifact functionality, but they decided against it because they felt there was too much precedence to lose in Howling Mine. So instead they opted for these:

Admittedly, it's easy for me to sit here and criticize this decision more than a decade later. Back then nobody had good data on who exactly played Magic and Wizards assumed the playerbase mirrored the ones they saw at tournaments.

Nowadays we know that while the average player plays for a very long time, they also haven’t been playing all that long. Magic has seen huge growth of late, and if we’re planning on more of that in the future the game needs to be the best it can be for the long term rather than adhere to precedent.

That said, giving up some varieties of artifacts would result in player backlash. As such, I think an artifact-centric set is actually the wrong time to discontinue Etherwrought Pages. We should do that years beforehand so that when Mirrodin III: Karn Does the Time Warp Again finally comes out it matches player expectations for artifacts rather than fighting them.

Of course, the good folks at Wizards know their craft. If it were trivial to give artifacts their own identity they would have by now. So let’s see what we’re up against.

What do we even want?

All this time I’ve been talking about giving artifacts more identity, but I haven’t proposed what exactly that identity should be. If we decide to make them colorless, it rules out our opportunity to return to Alara. If we make them tap, equipment look out of place. If we make them have activated abilities, we lose the ability to print simple artifact creatures like Bronze Sable. If they need to continuously impact the game, it becomes nearly impossible to print an artifact-matters set under New World Order.

And no matter how we constrain their identity, we miss out on callbacks to something players liked. Well, unless we’re particularly clever.

First, let’s see which concerns we can address.

It’s simply not worth giving up equipment to make all artifacts tap. Nor does it add much definition to do away with Spellbombs. So the real question is if we should require that artifacts activate.

Most of them (about 73% of those in Standard) do anyway. We’d mostly be giving up two classes of cards.

“Choose your own enchantment” cards that slot into a variety of decks:

And simple creatures that any drafter can play:

That’s a very real price and begs the question of how much we would gain. Will requiring activations really consolidate artifacts’ feel when we also print cards like Reckless Scholar and Barrage of Expendables?

I don’t think we get enough.

So that seems to indicate that what we really need to do in order to preserve artifact identity is draw a harder line and keep them colorless. That identity’s bound to be degraded a bit by what we have yet to see in Khans of Tarkir block and by public enemy number #2: The Eldrazi, but it seems to be the best we’ve got.

All is not Lost

Now not returning to Alara is a cost, but I’m not sure it’s a very big one. The block was popular, but that’s par for the course with a gold block, and we’ve certainly seen more popular blocks since. Magic is going to have a hard enough time finding room to return to everything popular as it is, even with the new block structure. So my stance is that we shouldn’t sacrifice the identity of artifacts for all time just to get an Alara callback once a decade.

But that’s not the only time we’ve seen colored artifacts. You’ve got Transguild Courier, Pith Driller, and Godsend. To my mind none of those applications is worth keeping colored artifacts around for, and most of the conceivable design space can be covered with implementations like Sylvok Replica.

R&D works years ahead, so I can only hope that this article is pointless because they’ve already come to the same conclusions (if not a yet better solution). But we can always look for something better, so let me know: what did I miss?


  1. Excellent article, but I think you got a bit ahead of yourself! There is one obvious thing missing:


    Why bother constraining identity at all? What role does it serve for gameplay? For flavor?

    Note that I'm not disagreeing with you - I agree wholeheartedly that giving an identity to artifacts would be great for the game. But I feel like when you put forward such a bold assertion as "No more colored artifacts because it's worth it", you need to prove that worth.

    Also, a counterpoint - I think artifact creatures work just fine without needing to fit into the 'identity' of artifacts because they have such a strong and obvious flavor. Enchantment creatures aren't something in popular culture; they need to CONVINCE you they're enchantments. But artifact creatures pull that off just based on how they look. (I still agree that having a connection to an 'artifact identity' would strengthen their resonance, though. I'm just arguing it isn't necessary like it was for enchantment creatures.)

    Again, good article. I look forward to hearing a response.

    1. Sorry everyone for taking so long to get to these comments. Anyhow: excellent note, Inanimate. Thanks.

      The long and short of why I'm focused on artifacts having an identity is twofold. First off, I think all card types should have as clear an identity as is feasible. It makes the game easier to learn when you can say "this is what an artifact is" rather then "here is how the rules interact with cards saying artifact on them." On top of that, strong card type identities help new cards resonate better for established players. Without them you can hear a new card being discussed without ever knowing what it does! For instance, when Scars of Mirrodin came out, numerous players assumed Revoke Existence was an instant because it reminded them of Disenchant and there's no clear dividing line between instants and sorceries.

      The other reason that I'm concerned about artifacts in particular is that rules-wise they're identical to enchantments (okay, yes, there are corner cases surrounding gaining card types, but let's not get into that). I'd be happy to combine them into one card type if we had Magic to start over, but I don't think we want to fight against 20+ years of inertia on this issue, so to justify the delineation going forward we ought to make it clearer. I don't want to leave players wondering why the card type even exists.

    2. As for artifact creatures, I agree as far as cards like Will-Forged Golem, but I don't think the flavor is universally clear enough to forgo mechanical definition. I mean, how are we supposed to justify the fact that Puppet Conjurer is an artifact and Embersmith isn't?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I'm pretty much in total agreement with Inanimate here. You missed one crucial defining quality of artifacts in your analysis-- something that is true of 100% of artifacts, and 0% of non-artifact cards. Namely: they all have the word "artifact" in their type line.

      It may sound trivial and/or circular, but it's an incredibly important point. A quick Gatherer search turns up 933 cards whose rules text somehow cares about cards with the 'artifact' type (and that's ignoring random stuff like Creeping Renaissance). Whether or not 'artifact' would be a coherent game concept in a vacuum, the fact is that it's reached critical mass and become its own independent quality. I think we need to respect that and focus on making sure that artifacts fit their flavor, as Inanimate says.

    2. Also, artifacts are a more obvious concept. Everyone can recognize an artifact. But enchantments... those are more wishy-washy, magical-mystical stuff. They need to have a more defined mechanical space precisely because they lack a definite flavor.

      Therefore, it would make sense that artifacts can get away with a more flexible mechanical space because they have a much more precise and concrete flavorful space.

    3. As far as the definition on cards, I think that's actually an argument towards restricting their space. First off it's harder to make coherent card concepts that interact with all artifacts the more varied those artifacts are. For another, we want it to be as immediately clear as possible what a card affects when it says "artifact" in its text.

      As far as the flavor concepts, I agree that artifacts are coherent enough flavorfully for more mechanical room. The issue is that they don't exist in a vacuum, and the only way we're going to keep the wishy-washy enchantment flavor defined is to stop artifacts from overlapping all of their space.

  3. What problem are you trying to solve? I would have guessed that most people would say "artifacts are colourless" if they're familiar with the different card types, unless they've primarily played Esper or New Phyrexia, do you think that's wrong?

    I agree with the conclusion, that colourless is a defining feature, and the other features are ones that are common but not required.

    After all, Theros has enchantments that are creatures and can attack (otherwise forbidden for enchantments). And 'creatures' which _can't_ attack or block (Gods). Rise had colourless non-artifact creatures. Pure enchantments that tap is one of the few principles left (and was broken in time spiral :))

    Is there any downside to an occasional coloured-artifact set? I'm genuinely not sure, it's not obvious to me either way. If you'd asked me, I'd have assumed wizards would say they need a good long break after two fairly close together, but they will do it again if it's appropriate.

    1. PS. But I am very amused by the title, "artificial constraints" :)

    2. Glad you appreciated the title. As for long-term harm, I'm with you most of the way, but there are a few issues that still bother me.

      1. Players take their introduction to Magic as a baseline. I started in Odyssey and was confused when subsequent sets didn't have Threshold. A friend started in Innistrad and was shocked by the lack of DFCs in the core set. Colored artifacts may not ruin the concept for everyone, but at the very least they'll make it tough on those who start when they're around.

      2. Magic players get technical. Whenever somebody is teaching a new player at the card shop and makes a generalization, someone is bound to chime in and correct them. "Artifacts can be played with any color." "Well, not the ones from Shards of Alara!" This is a sunk cost and it's too late no matter what we do.

      3. Precedent is king. I wish I could say that on every set R&D carefully analyzes exactly what should go where from a clean slate, but like everyone else they got their concepts of how Magic should work from Magic. The same process that led to us getting nonblack clauses for decades because of the flavorful Terror likewise means that the more exceptions we make to core rules like artifact color, the more willing future designers will be to throw them by the wayside.

    3. Thank you for following up. I'm sorry, I didn't see your reply until you wrote the follow-up article.

      But, you say, "I started in Odyssey and was confused when subsequent sets didn't have Threshold. A friend started in Innistrad and was shocked by the lack of DFCs in the core set."

      I agree this is confusing! But it seems an inevitable result of having a major mechanic in each set (be that threshold, or coloured artifacts, or whatever), not anything to do with artifacts specifically.

      Are you saying that sets should not have major mechanics which depart from the usual magic baseline? Or that some mechanics are ok but coloured artifacts aren't?

  4. I agree with jack. Artifacts have the identity of being colorless. The fact that this convention is broken with moderate frequency doesn't mean it's not a proper identity. Players generally understand that Esper is an exceptional place.

    Analogously, sorceries and instants have the identity of "one-time effects", which is not undermined by the existence of Flashback and Rebound.

    1. I guess where I draw the distinction is that I'm not convinced a player starting out with Shards does understand that Esper's exceptional. Rebound is clearly added to the base functionality of the card, but the mana cost looks endemic. That said, this is a good example and probably indicates that my perception of the precedent is at least a little bit too sensitive.

  5. I don't understand the thesis of this article. Do artifacts have an identity crisis? Moreso than Enchantments, Creatures or lands?

    Is there something wrong with Genesis Chamber and Farsight Mask having an untapped clause? I don't understand the implication. You say it's easy to criticize a decade later, but what is your criticism?

    What current artifact effects are you calling for removal from its slice of the pie? Triggered effects at upkeep? Is that all?

    I don't understand why artifacts have to always be colorless, or why continuing to use colorled artifacts would invalidate their central identity as colorless. Every attribute you'd ascribe to a card type in magic should have an asterix after it.

    Lands tap for mana.*
    Creatures attack and block.*
    Aura's attach to a permanent.*
    Spells resolve and are put into the graveyard.*

    If you asked me to define artifacts, I'd say:

    Artifacts are usually colorless.
    Artifacts generate game effects from within their slice of the color pie.
    Some artifacts attach to other permanents for an effect.

    If you asked me to define enchantments, I'd say:

    Enchantments are usually colored.
    Enchantments generate game effects from within their color's slice of the color pie.
    Some enchantments attach to other permanents for an effect.

    Whether a particular set uses enchantments or artifacts, or colorless enchantments, or colored artifacts, I don't really care. Whatever the set needs, it should use.

    I have no philisophical problem with:

    Executioner's Capsule
    Artifact, B
    1B, T, Sacrifice Executioner's Capsule: Destroy target nonblack creature.

    Seal of Doom
    Enchantment, 2B
    Sacrifice Seal of Doom: Destroy target nonblack creature. It can't be regenerated.


    Nefarious Lich
    Enchantment, BBBB
    If damage would be dealt to you, exile that many cards from your graveyard instead. If you can't, you lose the game.
    If you would gain life, draw that many cards instead.
    When Nefarious Lich leaves the battlefield, you lose the game.

    Immortal Coil
    Artifact, 2BB
    T, Exile two cards from your graveyard: Draw a card.
    If damage would be dealt to you, prevent that damage. Exile a card from your graveyard for each 1 damage prevented this way.
    When there are no cards in your graveyard, you lose the game.
    Illus. Dan Scott

    Lich's Tomb
    Artifact, 4
    You don't lose the game for having 0 or less life.
    Whenever you lose life, sacrifice a permanent for each 1 life you lost. (Damage causes loss of life.)


    Eldrazi Conscription
    Tribal Enchantment — Eldrazi Aura, 8 (8)
    Enchant creature
    Enchanted creature gets +10/+10 and has trample and annihilator 2.

    Tribal Enchantment — Treefolk Aura, 1G (2)
    Enchant creature
    Enchanted creature is a Treefolk with base power and toughness 0/4 and loses all abilities.

    Cloak and Dagger
    Tribal Artifact — Rogue Equipment, 2
    Equipped creature gets +2/+0 and has shroud.
    Whenever a Rogue creature enters the battlefield, you may attach Cloak and Dagger to it.
    Equip 3

    1. I think Jules' criticism is that the "if this is untapped" clause is awkward and unnecessary. I mostly agree, but I see what they were aiming at: Mirrodin block also had a relatively large number of cards that tapped artifacts (Auriok Transfixer, Blinkmoth Well, Icy Manipulator, Synod Artificer), which made the phrase occasionally relevant. Still, I doubt it was worth the extra words.

    2. I like those cards. My Jor Kadeen Commander deck makes great use of Blinkmoth Urn and Genesis Chamber. Plus Thunderstaff is an interesting design that came from the throwback. I like it.

    3. Thunderstaff is indeed cool. I'm not saying nothing good came of it, just that it's not clean design and therefore only worth considering for the callback, which I and current R&D agree they overvalued.

      As for the main point, I covered why I think artifacts need a coherent identity in reply the first comment (Inanimate's). I agree that I didn't spell it out as well as I could.

      Magic is bound to have exceptions to almost all of its rules, but that doesn't mean we just throw our hands up yell "olly olly oxen free." Basically I'm saying that colorlessness is the only thing it makes sense to hang artifacts' identity hat on, so we shouldn't be making them colored just because artifacts sound like a cool theme for a Shard or making other things colorless just because someone had a cool idea about the Lovecraftian horrors being older than color. Those things are cool, but not essential, and Wizards never would have, say, printed Counterspell in green just to support one of them.

  6. Phyrexian mana cards and the idea of two-brid artifacts don't bother me. Sure they're colored, but you can play them with colorless sources. Godsend feels a bit out of place. I'd have preferred it as a colorless equipment with "equipped creature gets +3/+3. If equipped creature is White, it has [that exiling ability]."

    In sum: Artifacts can get better with certain colors / colored mana, but should have a colorless option.

    1. That's a fair point, and they certainly feel more in keeping for me as well. Whether they're enough better to be considered for the future is something we could certainly debate.

  7. All of this is not to say that you can't have a design philosophy. If you decide that all the artifacts in a particular setting will have Tap Abilities, or be colored, it's totally acceptable. If you want to include a clearer separation between artifacts and enchantments, then include designs that support the distinction.

  8. If the goal is to better define the line between artifacts and enchantments, we need to examine the defining aspects of enchantments, and build around those.

    Enchantments are colored permanents in two varieties: Auras and not. Auras are rather like equipment, except they attach immediately and are lost when their target LTBs. Non-aura enchantments usually have a static or triggered effect, rarely an activated ability, and never have a tap effect.

    So, we could require all non-equipment artifacts to have tap effects, but that seems rather heavy-handed. We could require all artifacts to have activated abilities and all enchantments not to. Or we could require no artifacts to have static effects and all enchantments not to.

    Is making either of those concessions worth it? There will always be tons of old cards that contradict the new system. Players will subtly sense the shift, but will never notice it, except those who read about the new philosophy on the mothership.