Monday, June 27, 2016

New Mechanic Review—Escalate

WotC revealed the new keywords in Eldritch Moon today and I'm very excited to try them out. Since the Prerelease isn't also today, let's review them from a Design perspective instead. Today, we'll take a look at escalate.

Official spoilers follow, but no custom cards do.

Escalate makes no attempt to hide its heritage in entwine.

It's identical for the commons; Matt Tabak stated they will only have two modes. The difference is that escalate is more modular because it supports 3 modes, 4 modes, however many you can fit on a card, and the higher rarity escalators in Eldritch Moon will have more modes. Check out Blessed Alliance.

Entwine was a lovely mechanic: A kicker variant to act as a mana sink combined with modal spells (two-dimensional charms), all of them carefully designed so that the two effects combined were greater than the sum of their parts.

Since escalate does everything entwine did, the only possible criticisms are that entwine wasn't worth repeating or that we should have just stuck with entwine, rather than making a slightly different version with a new name.

The first argument is weak because entwine was and is a fun mechanic that creates unique gameplay while giving purpose to excess mana late in the game, with plenty of design space left to explore. The second argument will be defeated when we see all the sweet uncommons and rares spill out, offering Cryptic Command-like potential except with new unbounded potential.

You could still contend that they didn't need to name a new keyword, and could have instead just updated the rules meaning of entwine. That wouldn't even create any functional changes for existing entwine cards. Renaming it helps advertise the mechanic as something new, which every set needs, and also fits the theme of the set better (though 'entwine' isn't bad for a set riddled with tentacles).

As with all multi-modal spells, each effect is executed in order and that's important. Okay, not for Borrowed Malevolence or Blessed Alliance, but it's a sure bet it'll matter on a number of escalating cards. The pre-set order lets the card makers prevent players from playing them in a suboptimal order. It also prevents rules-breaking orders (which would be avoided in the effect selection process anyhow, but this way the effort is less manual) and can be used to limit the power of a fully-escalated card (though I won't be surprised if they never used this option, because the goal of combining effects is to combo excitingly).

Escalate does suffer from the Kavu Titan problem, but that's arguably an education challenge (a problem with a teachable opportunity) and a cost I'm usually happy to pay for a good mana sink. Speaking of which, escalate is a better mana sink than entwine the same way that multikicker is a better sink than kicker, because it offers granularity via multiple tiers.

Shadows over Innistrad used investigate as its mana sink, but I'm pretty sure we won't see many new investigate cards in Eldritch Moon since the mystery has been solved. That means we need something else to take their place in the new packs, and escalate serves that role well—heck it even comes in installments of {2} much of the time.

Escalate isn't a marquee mechanic, and I don't expect many players to attend a prerelease or buy a box just to play with escalate, but it is also a mechanic with a ton of potential for Tammy to salivate over and skillful decisions for Spike to meditate on, so I do think it adds to the set's appeal. And I'm certain it'll be fun to play with when you're drawing a bunch of lands.


  1. There is one more significiant criticism about Escalate - whereas Entwine was worded positively ("you can do this if you want"), Escalate is worded like Strive ("you can do this, but if you do it'll cost you") which feels far more negative.

    Presenting players with "Choose one or more" then saying "Oh, but if you choose more, it'll cost ya" feels far more like a downside. Strive struggled to get a positive reception because of this. I wonder if Escalate's roots in Entwine will help it overcome this perception issue, or whether it too will struggle.

    1. I do very much like the mechanic though, and I really like the idea of "New Mechanic Review".

    2. Fair point. Would you prefer entwine's templating?

      Choose one:
      • effect
      • effect
      Escalate (You may choose more than one, paying {2} for each additional mode)

    3. Yes, something more along those lines, though I do worry that putting it at the bottom will lead to many players not realizing they could have picked more. (Apparently this is a common issue, judging by designer and developer comments about keywords such as Evoke, but I've never seen it.)

  2. I'm wondering if the reason they simply didn't rework entwine is because of that flavor issue you mentioned - it works great on the tentacle monsters' side, but less well on cards depicting the humans fighting off the tentacle monsters.

    I'm sad that it looks like this will be the death knell of entwine. Like Inanimate, I both dislike the Strive-esque wording but like the mechanic overall.

    The Mechanics article confirmed that madness, delirium, and DFCs will be returning, which means 0 investigate or skulk cards in EMN.

  3. Someone from wizards said on twitter "no more investigate cards, when the eldrazi appeared, everyone figured out they were responsible" :)

    And likewise, yeah, I like the entwine variant, I don't like the wording but I assume it was probably the best option.