Monday, November 17, 2014

CCDD 111714—Infect?

Cool Card Design of the Day
11/17/2014 - I discovered last night that the Weekend Art Challenge I had scheduled never went live. Sorry about that, artisans. Mid-week challenges have done poorly in the past, so I'll save it for this weekend. Instead, I'll be sure to post more CCDDs to discuss this week.

First up, I was listening to MaRo's Lessons Learned podcast about Scars of Mirrodin and it occurred to me to wonder if the set had to have -1/-1 counters. Consider this:

What if infect's innovation (apart from being tied to power) was that it dealt poison counters to creatures too? Poison counters on creatures accumulate until there are as many as the creature's toughness (or more), at which point it dies a painful and horrible death.

This change would have simplified Scars games a bit. There was never any confusion between poison counters and -1/-1 counters (because one lived exclusively on players and the other on creatures), so we gain nothing there, but we've consolidated two types of tracking the same thing into one, improving initial comprehension, and the board state is also easier to process because you never need to mentally adjust an infected creature's stats.

That's nice, but the big win is thematic. Players/Planeswalkers don't suffer regular damage quite the same way creatures do—and neither does my proposal for creature poison—but this way makes the analogy much closer, the mechanic more consistent, the flavor stronger.

Note that in the same way the infect keyword on the real Cystbearer doesn't explain how poison works on players, the reminder text for this version doesn't have to explain how it works on creatures either (that can go on the poison counters, next to the 10=lose text), but I included it here to clarify the difference.

Downsides? Of course.

Poison counters are strictly worse than -1/-1 counters and by a fair margin. When the original Cystbearer blocks Molder Beast, the 5/3 is reduced to 3/1, which means it will die the next time it tangles with anything and it bashes faces less effectively until then. When the all-poison Cystbearer blocks Molder Beast, the 5/3 remains large and those two poison counters mean nothing if it's blocked by a 1/1 without infect. Reducing the power of a mechanic isn't bad design, though, since it means we can feature it on cards with more attractive numbers. Worth noting: Many of Scars' infect creatures were given pretty attractive numbers regardless, partly as a reward for their lack of synergy with non-infect creatures, but partly to really push poison and ensure players felt the fear the set was trying to evoke.

Tracking poison counters on a player despite them not mattering until they were about to kill you was fine because you just needed 1d10. Tracking poison counters on a handful of creatures is a bit more cumbersome. Yes, we were tracking a bunch of -1/-1 counters, but those all had a direct game effect. What we gain in comprehension and board simplicity, we lose in board relevance.

The cons don't seem to match the pros to me, so… Why didn't Wizards go this route?

It's entirely possible they never considered it. The real infect took the "deals damage in the form of" tech from wither and applied it to poison/poisonous. So latching onto wither itself was not only natural but quite clever: Upgrading poisonous creatures to be scary not just for you but for your blockers was a huge step toward achieving the block's goal of making players feel its theme. Scars design blossomed much later than for most blocks while MaRo was figuring out to start in Mirrodin and end in New Phyrexia, and its not common for designers to look very far beyond a great revelation, particularly on a tight deadline.

It's also entirely possible—likely even, given how good these folks are at their job—that they did consider this simpler version. Maybe it was determined that the rules couldn't allow counters that go on players to also go on permanents. Or they didn't want to add creature rules to the existing poison rules. Maybe testing showed that poison didn't affect creatures enough to be worthwhile. Maybe all-poison infect worked fine, but upgrading to -1/-1 counters took the mechanic up that notch needed to convey the terrifying nature of the Phyrexia plague.


  1. First, to me, Scars block is hands down the best execution WOTC has ever made on the three set block structure and the integration of story into a set mechanically (I might go a step further and say it is the only set where they have really integrated the story mechanically in any meaningful way).

    Second, and this may relate to my feelings above, I really don't see what it is that is being fixed here. We're replacing an immediately grokkable counter (-1/-1) with one with a different and unintuitive rule that requires the introduction of a new state based effect.

    How often were you doing -1/-1 counter math in Scars block anyway? They pushed toughnesses down so aggressively (with TONS of 1 toughness creatures) that I found that part of infect actually came up fairly rarely. I think development actually pushed it a bit too hard, and that it would have been more fun to see them pile up now and then.

    Unlike +1/+1 counters (which seem to pile up more and more every block... particularly in THS where you had both counters and auras), the -1/-1 counter math is very self limiting.

    If I wanted to simplify Infect (which I think is essentially a perfect mechanic as is), I would replace the -1/-1 counter part with giving them deathtouch.

    1. I agree with Tommy.

      Also, I believe that +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters are such essential design tools that there should be a highly compelling reason (such as Level Up) to create a set that eschews them.

    2. That's about what I was thinking. Also, -1/-1 counters work with the rare-but-existent -1/-1 counters in other blocks, and work with +1/+1 counters by cancelling out. Poison counters could end up on the same creature as +1/+1 counters. To me, -1/-1 is more grokkable than poison.

      Of course, I'm always biased towards what was actually printed. I think poison counters could have been printed equally easily, and there are some upsides. But to me, infect just felt so right.

    3. I agree. -1/-1 counters proved to have a powerful emotional impact in Shadowmoor, which was what they wanted but more so for Scars. These creatures feel permanently scarred by having tangled with Phyrexia, not just because proliferate can incrementally weaken them further, but because their effectiveness against *all* creatures is weakened. The Molder Beast example to me illustrates perfectly how infect (like wither before it) felt really intimidating to attack into.

      You appear to be suggesting that it'd be better if the Beast just gained two meaningless counters, that only do anything if you draw another card to make them worth anything (a proliferate card or another infect creature). Hopefully phrasing it in those terms makes it evident why I think infect as printed is a better mechanic.

  2. To me, this doesn't work because you can kill a 20 toughness creature with 20 damage or 20 poison, but you can kill a 20 life player with 20 damage or 10 poison.

  3. >"The cons don't seem to match the pros to me, so… Why didn't Wizards go this route?"

    I think you answered your own question here. The cons don't match the pros; they far outweigh them. Having to keep track of a pile of counters that do almost nothing until you get another infect creature is horrible gameplay, and you gain only a very marginal thematic boost.

    1. Specifically, the board only gets *more* complicated with this change. Now there are a bunch of creatures that have pseudo-damage marked on them, which usually doesn't matter but will start mattering again if they tangle with an infect creature or get hit with a -N/-N or -0/-N effect. This would be Lorwyn all over again; piles of information that matters slightly, so you have to track it, but not enough that it comes up regularly, so it doesn't become second nature.