Thursday, May 14, 2015

Zeffrikar Tangent 1: Excavating Zendikar

Introduction: Bury the Lead

On MTGO, they just released this really cool idea of a product (I can't testify as to whether it's actually cool or not, I avoid MTGO most of the time). Tempest Remastered. Take a block that wrapped up seventeen years ago, cultivate the cards from across the sets down to 250 or so, and make it as close to modern draftable as the card pool allows. It's a great idea, and I hope it sells a billion digital packs so they do it with some other blocks. It's a set that lets them capture the nostalgia of the past sets while skipping over the fact that they're pretty terrible to draft with by modern standards.

The Artisans Strike Back

After posting the first part of my exploratory design document, I met with some immediate and significant critique for one of my initial choices. I had made the decision that landfall would not be a returning mechanic in Zeffrikar. After reading the feedback I received in the comments, I wanted to take a short break to reconsider that decision.

While it's not my favorite ability, I didn't jettison it from consideration initially because it didn't excite me. It's a fine ability, and I know it has a large fanbase, and, as far as ability words go, it's broad and modular, which makes it a prime candidate for bringing back. The main reason I pushed it to the side was because, despite some very insightful comments arguing otherwise, I don't feel that the mechanic helps sell adventure-world in any real way, particularly in light of the other mechanics (especially Zen/WW mechanics like allies, traps, and quests) that did. The 5th age of design demands that mechanics be used to sell a theme, and Landfall can't close that deal.

The other major critique I received was, in essence, that no mechanic is more closely tied with its block than Landfall is with Zendikar. While I don't know if that's actually the case (Mirrodin/Affinity, for better or worse, was far more closely associated in my mind), I hear the argument. Player expectations are incredibly important (the Comfort part of Rosewater's oft-mentioned communications model), and failing to hit a significant expectation would be problematic.

Judgment Day

The thing is, I'm not entirely convinced that Landfall being included in BfZ is a player expectation. There is no doubt in my mind that Zendikar was a Land set first, and an adventure set second, but I'm not at all sure that Zendikar was a Landfall set first and everything else second. Yes, the mechanic was incredibly tied to the block, but let's pick apart why that was the case.

I reiterate, Zendikar was first and foremost a land set. That meant that the lands-matters volume was cranked to 11. Every color had ways to get lands, and many mechanics awarded you for playing lands besides Landfall (kicker, a ton of unnamed mechanics). So with the land-matters volume so high, of course the named mechanic that explicitly said "play-moar lands" was going to stand out. In fact, it stood out so much that it dramatically warped the limited environment. It was one of the fastest draft environments in the history of the game, largely because nearly every single draft archetype centered on early-game landfall creatures.

A few weeks ago, after it first became apparent that I needed to give the landfall issue some reconsideration, I went to a draft at my LGS. (Incidentally, I'm a big fan of DTK-DTK-FRF, even if I'm terrible at it.) I asked everyone I had a chance to whether they would be upset if Landfall isn't in Battle for Zendikar. This was very informal polling, and nowhere near a statistically significant sampling, but most people I asked don't expect landfall to appear at all. Less than most, but more than some don't want it to return. Again, I doubt that the fifteen or so people drafting on a Tuesday night speak for the worldwide Magic community as a whole, but I do think that this is telling.

Back to the Future

BfZ is not Zendikar Remastered. This is not a block that's attempting to capture the nostalgia of six years ago. We're not bound to emulate that set's mechanics or draft environment. Nods will be made to it, of course. In fact, Landfall was always going to be in my skeleton for Zeffrikar. BfZ is a sequel block, and it would fail on that front if it didn't have some amount of land-matters to it. Landfall is a fantastic land matters mechanic, and it should be here. What I don't think is that it needs to be a central mechanic, or even a named mechanic. Sporemound will probably be in the first draft of the design skeleton, for instance.

Let's look at this another way. I consider Scars of Mirrodin more successful as a sequel than I do Return to Ravnica. RtR was a great block, and arguably a better overall design than Scars block, but aside from refine the guilds a little more, it didn't add anything significant that Ravnica block didn't already have. Scars took all the important defining aspects of Mirrodin and made sure those were accounted for in the set, but it also added important new elements, new things that made it exciting on its own completely separate from Mirrodin. And that's what we should be aiming for with BfZ. Of course lands have to matter, but they do not need to be central to the block's design. And if we're limiting ourselves to 4-6 named mechanics, I think there are better paths to explore than Landfall.


  1. You note that Scars was better than RTR, and yes, that's definitely true. For my money, it is probably the best designed Magic block of all time (although it could certainly benefit from modern development). Even though Scars did not have Affinity (and it nearly did), it did have Metalcraft, which is just Affinity Unbroken. Design desperately wanted Affinity in the set, and argued up and down with development for it, but ultimately was turned down.

    I will be shocked if Landfall doesn't return, especially since Mark has already said that they were trying out the ability on Seer's Sundial specifically to see if that was the direction they wanted to go next time they did Landfall.

    So I think the correct question, then, is can you imagine them bringing back Landfall anywhere but Zendikar? I definitely can't.

    1. Where did he say that about Seer's Sundial? That's been my hypothesis for years and I'd love to see it confirmed.

    2. I'm sure he said it, I'm not 100% sure where, but I think it has been mentioned more than once. I bet it is mentioned in the card stories for World Wake on Drive to Work.

    3. I remember you saying this in the comments last time, Inanimate, but I don't recall MaRo saying it.

      And then I just fired up DtW Worldwake Part 3 (Episode 129) where he talks about seer's sundial. I'm now 100% convinced landfall will be in Battle for Zendikar. We'll still be skipping it though.

  2. On an unrelated note, I totally agree about the Remastered series. I've been really enjoying playtesting my draft of my Theros Remastered set.

    1. What's that? I'm very interested!

    2. I took the same rules as they used for Tempest Remastered (that is, use only cards from the block, but you're allowed to shift around rarities) and try to make a good draft format out of it where as many cards are relevant as possible. Also NWO considerations are a bit less.

      This was an interesting challenge, as Theros block started out very solidly. I think THS-THS-THS is at least a B on design and is almost certainly the best developed set of all time (okay maybe Wingsteed Rider and Observant Alseid at common was a mistake). On the other hand, as the block progressed, both of those things went totally off the rails.

      Themes got tossed or modified or added in ways that led to a draft format that was a mess. That they let story reasons cause them to abandon devotion midblock, and that they replaced it with these ridiculous cards that count basic lands you have, are both pretty inexcusable.

      So there are all these awesome themes in there that never saw the light of day in draft, but can with some remixing. You can draft the Thassa's Devourer deck based around Constellation, for example, which was never really possible before.

      There are a lot of interesting decisions to make, like where the level of the removal should end up. A wise thing that was done by the developers was to slowly ratchet up the level of removal through the block, so that by the end building a giant Voltron was a little more risky than it was at the beginning. Cards like Pin to the Earth or Feast of Dreams really punish the Voltron strategy. Clearly Voltroning is fun, and an important part of Theros, but it is also the most criticized part, so there is certainly a balance to be struck there.

    3. Another interesting thing I've come across is the fact that Theros block does not have much interesting variety at common. I ended up premoting a lot of uncommons to common just to fill out space (since there are supposed to be 20 total commons of each color).

      Mind you, by interesting I don't mean texty. Rotted Hulk is a far more interesting common than Bloodcrazed Hoplite.

      I do think the reason why there is so little variety in the commons is because of an effort to maintain some homogeneity in the block as you drafted three sets. Akroan Skyguard and Wingsteed Rider are basically the same card. Pharika's Chosen and Sedge Scorpion are exactly the same card. There are a million forgettable and interchangeable combat tricks (and a few really memorable impressive ones, like Dauntless Onslaught!).

      There's a whole cycle of totally unplayable auras including Claim of Erebos. Just generally difficult to find 20 in each color so that stuff doesn't overlap and nothing is drek.

      On the other hand, the uncommon slot was overflowing. I extended the number of uncommons to the modern number (rather than the 60 it was at the time) and filled up every colors with no effort, and had tons of interesting ones left over. A lot got promoted to common, etc, and a lot just didn't fit.

      I have to say I really didn't expect this dichotomy across the rarities. I certainly haven't had this issue with my (similarly structured) core set cube. I wonder if it is just a result of the mechanic Heroic having relatively little design space and requiring lots of enablers (that all looked the same)?

    4. Thanks for the prompt and exhaustive response. Is there a link to the list you ended up with?

    5. Theros did a pretty good job highlighting why 2-block paradigm needed to happen. Between Born and Journey there was a lot of good stuff, but it was stretched a little thin between the two.

      I'd definitely like to see your list as well, even if it's a draft at this stage.

    6. I think the main reason they had those 'repetitive' commons is that the way Theros was set up was done to a very specific formula. The reason Scry was reprinted was to help assemble the pieces for the interactions of the set. You need enough Auras for your Heroic, but too many Auras and you have a problem - and you need enough Heroic for your Auras, but too many Heroics and you're stuck with a bunch of dead creatures.

      They had made a 'golden ratio' in Theros, and needed to stick to it as closely as they could as the sets developed. This is why we saw a lot of 'similar' or even 'strictly better' or 'strictly worse' cards - they wanted to keep things the same as best they could, or in the case of 'strictly better' and 'strictly worse', adjust some parts of the set easily and obviously.

      You're right, this is a symptom of the three-block layout. But it's also, in my opinion, perhaps an experiment they tried in how to adjust the set over time. How much can we keep the same? How much can we obviously change? It worked, as far as I can tell, but it never felt quite right.

    7. I definitely agree about this being a symptom of the three block structure. It is also, perhaps, a consequence of NWO and the attempt to strike the right balance between interesting common and interesting other cards.

      Here is my first draft, ignore the last page:

      Note: I put the Gods at Rare, which seems just completely wrong, however if I include them all (which I consider pretty much mandatory) and put them at Mythic, then there would be no more slots for Mythics. Since they are particularly unoppressive in limited (and rather make interesting build around opportunities there), I think Rare is fine in all ways except emotional feel/impact.

      One consequence of playtesting so far is that I don't like Black having two premium removal spells at Uncommon, and think I would prefer Black have a premium removal spell at Common instead. I'm inclined to try being crazy and promote Gild all the way to common, but we'll see how further testing shakes out.

    8. Of course I'd love any comments/suggestions.

      Especially anything of the form "I absolutely love [CARD X] and am sad to see it isn't here!"

    9. Not critiquing, I haven't gone through the file yet, I'm just curious: How much priority did you assign hitting the major Greek Mythology tropes, if any?

    10. That was somewhat of a tie-breaker. It definitely was considered, but it was not the primary consideration. For example, I went with Oreskos Sun Guide over Traveling Philosopher, even though the latter is the more thematic card. I do love Traveling Philosopher though, so I don't promise that will stick.

      For the rares, though, I invested a lot more effort in highlighting tropes. At higher rarities, I also tried to highlight cards that had a significant impact on Standard, which I imagine would be an expected goal for this kind of set?

      For me personally, the theme of Theros didn't particularly ooze out to me, it felt like an aesthetic treatment done after the fact rather than something that really defined the world. For me, WOTC has nailed the world feel in the mechanics only really with Innistrad and Scars of Mirrodin.

      That said, I knew plenty of people who were anxious to level up their hero card or whatever, so the theme clearly hit for a lot of people.

    11. Tommy: I disagree, I think the theme of Theros - the Hero's Journey - was excellently woven into the mechanics in the first set, and I would call the first set a paragon of experiential design, second only to Innistrad. In some ways, even better than Innistrad, actually.

      To quote from something I'm working on...

      "The Heroes of Theros often start off small, or at least adequate, for their size. But with investment, patience, and cooperation, they grow to monumental sizes with the "Heroic" mechanic. "Heroic" represents the experience of the hero beginning humble, but growing to face great dangers through trials and tribulations. These "trials" are, of course, the targeting spells. It's no coincidence that it's possible to 'burn' your own creature to make it bigger, or subject it to otherwise negative effects. Anything your hero undergoes is something they can learn from.

      The stature of the Heroes is important - compare them to the Monsters. Cards with Monstrous threaten to grow larger in the future - taking lessons from Innistrad's design of "foreshadowing". They represent the "heroes' call" - a monster is rampaging, and if it isn't stopped in time, the monster will destroy the city! However, there is a fundamental problem with this confrontation - the monsters are HUGE. Many monsters start off at ridiculous sizes for their cost and color - we see a 6/6 for 5, a 4/5 for 4, a 3/3 for 2, a 7/7 for 6, and so on, and so forth. The heroes start small - the monsters start big! Even from the very beginning, the heroes are forced to strive just to match the monsters, not even best them."

    12. It isn't that I don't get that intellectually, it is that, despite being one of the sets I drafted most, I never felt it. It is purely mechanic. Even in triple Theros, it was a (fun) intellectual exercise, that did not evoke an emotional reaction. As I said above, Theros really felt, to me, like it was designed entirely by development.

      Of course, as I also noted above, everyone has different emotional reactions. Plenty of people seemed to resonate with it. Perhaps especially those who were very into the source material?

      Innistrad was scary in so many little ways, in addition to the big obvious ones. For example, Innistrad had a lot of high variance bad cards, like Frightful Delusion and Lost in the Mist, that you were always in fear of. They could pop out of any corner and you had to ask of every opponent "they wouldn't really be playing Frightful Delusion, would they?" That was a brilliant choice.

      Scars had to list as its biggest design "failure" that it may have evoked the emotions of dread and invasiveness of the Phyrexians too well. I thought it was done pretty perfectly. Of course, the art really sold it too. That is perhaps a part of the failing of Theros for me as well, I think it is has the worst art of any Magic set in recent history (with some glorious exceptions obviously).

      Mind you all this makes it sound like I don't like Theros, but if there is anything that building this set taught me it is that I liked it way more than I thought I did. They just really messed it up as the block evolved.

    13. Elaborating, while I abstractly understand the flavor of a Staunch-Hearted Warrior or a Wingsteed Rider or a Nimbus Naiad (I guess, I think?) in play it is just a card with a particular weird trigger.

      (Worth noting an exception, the gods definitely feel like gods, no doubt about it. They nailed those.)

    14. Ahhhhhh okay. I see what you mean. Then yes, I agree. Intellectually, they capture the experience perfectly. But I think the problem is that, whereas in Scars of Mirrodin and Innistrad they were able to capture MOMENTS - which are immediate, visceral reactions - in Theros they were capturing PLOTLINES, which are multiple actions over time, thus diluting the visceral action by spreading it over a larger period of time, and making it harder to actually notice, let alone feel.

  3. Interesting description. That's well said about Scars, that it's a sequel, not just more of the same, and that makes even more sense for Zendikar where people had more mixed opinions about it.

    I think, I was assuming that Zendikar II needed a land mechanic equally prominent as landall was. And if you say "landfall wasn't that good, a different land mechanic" that would be fine. But it seemed you were approaching it as "adventure block" not "land block", and adding some land mechanics in afterwards, maybe. And that might be more interesting, but I think it's not what people were expecting from Zendikar II. Maybe people who don't read Making Magic don't think the same way, I'm not sure :)

  4. Interesting that so many people had positive reactions to Scars. In my mind it was one of the less successful sets of the NWO era, in terms of evoking the intended experience.

    The Phyrexian side of things was great, the Mirran side... not so much. Part of the reason being that it was a "sequel" and they didn't want to rehash everything, but I felt the things that they did bring back were either flavorless or used in too little quantity. Affinity obviously couldn't be a thing, but what about modular? Equipment is evergreen, indestructible is evergreen, imprint couldn't show up too much at common, and metalcraft, while serviceable, didn't do anything to distinguish the world from Dominaria or Esper to me.

    A common complaint I heard about the "two factions at war" plotline was that the Mirran faction was just boring. Both in terms of design concepts and changing the gameplay experience, infect, proliferate, living weapon, and Phyrexian mana added a lot more to the game than metalcraft or battle cry did. At the MBS prerelease, I picked Phyrexia because I would rather have interesting cards to play than a $10 (at the time) Hero of Boobhold promo. And this is coming from someone who loves Boros and loathes Golgari.

    Maybe it's because I didn't play Original Mirrodin (though the sequel is so different I'm not sure it would have mattered), but the block never gave me a sense of why non-Phyrexianized Mirrodin was worth saving. So it didn't feel like a violation of anything other than the color pie when Phyrexia ended up taking over.

    As for where landfall could be brought back, if not BFZ: a supplemental multiplayer product like Planechase seems like the best way to inject new cards with the mechanic into the card pool without worrying about an all aggro all the time draft format. They could have done it in a recent Core Set as well, but the time for that has passed. I suppose Origins is a possibility.

    In any case, I fall firmly in the "loved Zendikar, loved landfall" camp. Unlike SoM, I really wanted to believe that Zendikar, ye land of Allies and Traps and Quests and Kor and Vampires and terrible planeswalker designs and manland duals and we-have-a-great-excuse-for-never-drawing-a-map-of-this-place-ever could be saved from the Cthuluesque menace of ROE, despite a fraction of the effort being put into evoking the residents' thoughts, hopes, and desperation. (Though in this regard, I'm torn because I love the Eldrazi too. RG Spawn was my favorite archetype in that format. The timing of the upcoming Duel Decks release feels like an early birthday present to me.)

    1. For what it is worth, I was incredibly sentimentally attached to the Mirrans. Did you see Goblin Wardriver? He's got spunk, how can you not root for him? His art is still part of my desktop background rotation.

      Indeed, for years afterwards, the mouseover text on my Board Game Geek badge was "We will endure", the Mirran motto. When I got a new laptop this year, and thought about the name, I opted for Mirran1. Never in Magic history have I more identified with or rooted for a faction.

      Of course, I'm a Spike, I drafted plenty of Phyrexian cards, played infect decks, and every other archetype, but in addition to the feeling of playing against the Phyrexians, they also nailed, at least for me, the effect of making you feel really, really dirty for playing Phyrexian cards. You felt evil, like you were doing something wrong, like you'd gone to the Dark Side.

      (PS: If anyone here has a boardgamegeek account and wants some geekgold for a Magic themed badge (or other theme I guess) I have a ton laying around. Just let me know!)

    2. Tommy, what would you say are the most defining characteristics of Mirrodin/the Mirran faction that distinguish them from other "disconnected groups of human(oid)s from all five colors must band together or be wiped out by a terrifying foe" plotlines WotC has done, such as the Coalition on Dominaria or the humans of Innistrad?

    3. The humans on Innistrad didn't have an enemy, a problem with the macro story of Innistrad (it basically didn't exist). They were in an unfortunate situation, but that situation was that they lived on Innistrad. Ho hum. (Also, it did not help matters that Humans were by far the best/most consistent archetype in Innistrad draft).

      I do have a softspot for the Weatherlight storyline back in the day, but that was such a trope-y storyline that it was hard to identify with the groups. They were clearly just a plot device.

      I actually think having members of all five colors makes groups a lot easier to identify with. Real life groups are rarely homogenous in ideology, and those that are tend to be the groups I would not want to be identified with.

      If WOTC never did another color coded faction set, I would not personally miss it. I'm certainly not advocating this, though, I know a ton of players really like saying "I like faction X so I should draft colors Y and Z," but I've drafted factions of every color combination, I'm pretty satisfied with that.

      I do really genuinely believe the art and flavor text of Scars carries a lot of the responsibility for my emotional investment. Steady Progress being one example that will always stick in my mind.

    4. Tommy's reaction is 100% valid and relevant. Jenesis' reaction expresses my reaction to Scars better than I could have.

      I will offer that it is both inevitable and positive that different stories speak to different people.

    5. Yeah, and to be clear, I'm very aware I am at the far end of the positive scale on Scars and the far end of the negative scale on some other sets/blocks.

  5. Khalni Heart Expedition is a great example of landfall evoking adventure.

    1. Yeah, but was that because it was a quest or because it was landfall? Quests in general did adventure a lot better.

    2. Yes.

      What I'm suggesting is that the place for landfall in your set is to trigger effects literally of the flavor "Hey, you found a new place to explore? Here's what I do there."

      No +2/+2 bonuses, since going somewhere new shouldn't send most folks into a berserker rage, but scout-y things, discovery things, research-y things, etc.