Wednesday, April 8, 2015

CCDD 040815—Amphin Leaper

Cool Card Design of the Day
4/8/2015 - I stumbled upon the file for my first Magic set in the archives of my computer this week. This thing is 20 years old and it shows. In addition to being based off of antiquated Magic rules, templates and design standards, it also achingly demonstrates every possible mistake a new designer could make. I considered lampooning it card-by-card for you all, but it was about 700 cards, 99% of them trash, and at best 5% with any kernel of interesting design.

One remotely interesting idea I found I have reconstituted for you today:

Any time you're designing a keyword that is just a conditional version of an existing evergreen keyword, you need to seriously evaluate whether the mechanic is powerful enough to warrant putting on the number of cards you'd need to justify the keyword. Sometimes-trample and sometimes-haste are examples where the base mechanic isn't always relevant anyhow, and making a strictly worse version is unlikely to be worthwhile.

Accelerate does this with flash. Now, flash does tend to be stronger on average, helping you kill a small attacker, keep your mana open to Cancel a dangerous spell, and/or play an attacker at EOT that your opponent didn't budget her defense against. Even so, it's something to be skeptical of.

What I like about accelerate is that it rewards drafting and building your deck a certain way, and it creates more exciting moments throughout the game. Your opponent has two cards in hand and all their land untapped; is it safe to attack? Much like prowess, except only on defense. Obvious downsides include the fact that it turns off when you have just one card in hand or when you've only got a few untapped mana sources, and that it discourages attacking at a macro level.

I also like the way it feels. Play an instant to make your creature an instant. Suddenly I feel bad about not thinking harder about a name for the keyword that captures that idea better.

One upside to mechanics that are conditional evergreen abilities is they are of marginal value and so you can apply them without much additional cost, keeping the cards looking generally efficient. (Note, that's not a cureall, since you can make any efficient card look bad by adding upside text that just reads super-clunky or looks too unlikely.) In accelerate's case, since it only works when you cast a spell and that costs mana, expensive cards with accelerate are much less likely to benefit from it than cheap ones. Amphin Leaper is strictly better than Blind Phantasm (as are a number of common blue creatures nowadays), but being relative cheap while still having stats that trump 2/2s means you can 2:1 an unwary opponent on turn 4 or later.

We can potentially limit the amount accelerate exacerbates new players' fear of attacking by putting it on aggressive creatures or creatures with ETB effects that won't make great surprise blockers. It's worth noting that what accelerate costs new players, experts who enjoy bluffing gain in mind games. Even so, net negative.

There's one more big downside to accelerate. If you've got no creatures in play, you can't use a combat trick to drop your Leaper and target it with that trick. You're forced to choose targets to cast the trick and it's too late. While that's probably better in terms of mechanical balance, that wrinkle will surely leave some players high-and-dry feeling suddenly less clever than they thought, and that's never great.

So is accelerate worth it? It's certainly not a slam dunk. Might be quite a few years before we find a set that would actually benefit from it. At least it was fun to analyze. What do you think?


  1. A fantastic example of something that would be great on one card to a handful of cards but should probably not be a keyword, especially since the casting cost is so constrained.

    I probably can't play this 2/3 with flash until turn 6 at least, at which point how excited am I? And that is on a 3 drop. Obviously this ability on a 5+ drop is basically trinket text. Of course, you can address that:

    Delver of Secrets v. 2 5U
    Creature - Insect (?)

    Flash, Flying

    ~ costs 5 less to cast if you've countered a spell this turn.


    1. I don't agree with your math. Most common instants cost 1 or 2, and players who want to build an accelerate deck would choose more instants just as they do for prowess decks.

      That said, I wouldn't be surprised in the least to find that accelerate is terrible in any quantity and should just appear on some random rare rather than as a creature.

    2. For example, Khans, which has more than the average number of cheap instants to enable prowess has 19 common instants and 8 of them cost 1 or 2. Four of those (Erase, Naturalize, Shatter, and Feed the Clan) are unplayable, and perhaps one of the others is, making the "as played" rate of common instants in Khans that cost 1 or 2 equal to 4 / 14, which is a little under 30%. It is certainly true that a lot of instants used to cost 1 or 2, but WOTC has (correctly I think) been pushing the costs up to make guessing what your opponent has more interesting.

      For the record, my turn 6 was assuming that two cost would be common, since turn 6 is the earliest you can reasonably expect to have 5 lands.

      While getting coffee, I thought of this other riff, which I enjoyed:

      Illusory Retainers 2U
      Creature - Illusion

      Cast ~ only if you've cast another spell this turn.

    3. Illusory Retainers is pretty great.

    4. Thanks, I do love riffing. Iteration is the best part!

  2. I'm trying to imagine the accelerate card which is a better design for having accelerate instead of flash, and I can't. 1 mana cheaper + clunkier mechanic does not an elegant design make, even if gives development finer control over power level.

    1. Accelerate is definitely not as elegant as flash. Neither is prowess. You'll also have trouble imagining a prowess card that wouldn't be better with +1/+1 instead of prowess.

      Again, I'm not saying accelerate is a good keyword, but elegance is only one of many virtues we look for in a mechanic, and there are many less elegant mechanics that are quite good.

  3. "I stumbled upon the file ..."
    Disappointed you didn't proceed to announce Cold Snap 2.

  4. In retrospect, accelerate wants to be a rider on one or two surge cards.