Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Train of Thought—Prowess & Creature-Spells

You are embarking a Magic Design train of thought. Destination: Unknown.

We're pretty familiar with the Jeskai tension between playing enough creatures to benefit from your prowess triggers and enough non-creatures to trigger them. We haven't seen this much tension in a major Magic mechanic for quite some time as R&D has actively alleviated it in recent sets:

The bestow creatures are creatures and auras so they can serve both roles and reduce the chance of drawing auras with no valid targets. Half the cards with populate make tokens first to mitigate the chance of having no tokens to copy. Even in a set with as many artifacts as Scars of Mirrodin, six metalcraft creatures were artifacts themselves.

Where Lorwyn could just staple on more creature types and Alara could add more colors to a card, you can't make non-creature spells creatures. You can make spells that generate creature tokens but without prowess that only does so much for the deck. Spells that generate a single token are better templated as creatures that generate a spell effect instead. Assuming there were some reasonable way to template prowess so that it could trigger on any spell effect (and that's a huge assumption, but it takes us somewhere interesting, so let's just go with it), we could smooth out Jeskai gameplay.

The first thing that popped to mind was a set of creatures that we could discard for a spell effect: A creature/sorcery split card in spirit. The same way reinforce lets you 'cycle' for a particular effect, we could make a keyword that lets you 'cycle' for 2/2 tokens (hmm, morph does this for {3}), but if we instead put a discard-for-spell mechanic on a creature, we avoid using tokens and gain flexibility in the creatures involved.

Lorwyn's evoke creatures do this quite well, always giving you the spell effect and sometimes also the creature. We could make cards that grant you the creature xor the effect, but then how do you achieve any kind of resonance between the two halves? The channel creatures from Kamigawa are exactly what I was proposing, and they tie in the effect via a matching tap ability. Those weren't terribly popular because it's hard to make a combination of creature/effect that is appealing to play both ways; either you're discarding a creature with a great spell effect you could use multiple times, or the effect is marginal enough not to matter much.

You can go half-way and say that you always get the creature, but it's bigger if you don't use the spell effect. That's the resourceful mechanic from my cringe-worthy GDS2 entry, and it's much wordier and more fiddly than it is fun or interesting. You can also just make an ETB trigger or LTB trigger to get the spell effect when the creature lands or dies. ETB triggers dissuade players from casting their creature when the effect is useless, and LTB triggers can be tricky to coordinate. Creatures that sacrifice for a spell effect are pretty flexible, letting you attack and block with them for as long as you want before cracking them for a spell effect if/when you need it.

You can also make creatures that trigger multiple times, like Preeminent Captain or Allies. If the trigger's easy like Lorescale Coatl's, it becomes hard to make many cards with relevant effects and we don't want players getting big effects like "draw a card" or "kill a creature" every turn.

There's another class of abilities that let you get a spell-like effect off of a creature when you care to (and have the mana): Monstrosity and morph both let you upgrade your creature exactly once and we can trigger effects off either of them. Given that morph is in the same set as prowess, I wonder if R&D ever considered making prowess' trigger unmorphing a creature. That would happen less frequently which dilutes the fun of it, but we could make it more impactful (+2/+2 sounds about right). The big downside is that your opponent would know more often when you can trigger prowess since it'd be impossible without a facedown creature on the board. It also would've affected the Draft format immensely, pushing the Jeskai player to take more than her fair share of morphs (and particularly the cheap ones), and slowing the clan down.

You could definitely make the trigger for a small effect like prowess' +1/+1 as simple as "Whenever you cast [any] spell" and that would still push the player toward smaller spells and cantrips like Jeskai. It shifts the frequency of those triggers from well-below landfall to even higher than landfall, which means the creatures it appears on can't be as strong otherwise, but that's not a deal-breaker. The only reason to play non-creatures in a deck with that mechanic is for their effects (so... removal) and to hit the trigger during combat (so... instants.) That might be a deal-breaker because the Jeskai are meant to feel more contemplative, more clever, more martial-artistic, and an all-creature Jeskai rush deck really wouldn't.

It seems like prowess is likely in its best incarnation as printed, but my time wasn't wasted because I've now got a better understanding of why that is, as well as a few sparks of inspiration to kindle. Hopefully your time wasn't wasted either. As always, share your thoughts below!


  1. I'd previously been thinking that spell-morph (spells that can be cast face-down, or cast from the board for a Spellmorph cost) would show up in Khans block. This discussion makes me very confident that they'll show up in Fate Reforged.

    1. If they ever show up—and I personally hope they do—this is surely the block for them.

    2. Given how adamant they've been about the impossibility of anything that could possibly ever let an instant or sorcery card on the battlefield, I'm quite dubious.

    3. Looks real bad for spell morph right now.

  2. I like the alternatives, but didn't Mark say they started with "any spell" but it was too strong else the creatures with it had to be too weak? That suggests "any spell" would have been ok in every other way, but they explicitly needed the tension for balance?

  3. Also, the apparent Fate Reforged answer to this is manifest