Monday, April 24, 2017

Amonkhet Design Review

Hey folks. Please enjoy another post from guest columnist Jake Mosby.
—Jay Treat

The release of Amonkhet is just around the corner! Since we’re focused on design here, we’ll be discussing the design philosophy and implementation used for Amonkhet based on documents published by WIzards and by reviewing the set itself.

Design Goals
The first thing I do when starting projects is identify what my design goal(s) are, so it makes sense to start there with our Amonkhet analysis. From what we’ve seen of the design process, Wizards started by considering Amonkhet a “double dip” of top-down design. Their first design goal was to deliver an Ancient Egyptian experience to players. Their second goal was to lay the groundwork for Nicol Bolas’ devastating return to the plane. If we consider Wizards’ recent failure in setting up the correct vision for Return to Zendikar, it definitely looks like the design team and Mark Rosewater learned their lessons swiftly from that block. If Battle for Zendikar took this overlapping approach, we’d likely have seen more of the adventure-world influence in the set design. While there is always room to improve on refining a game’s vision, Amonkhet’s vision clearly marks a step in the right direction for R&D. I’ve long advocated having multiple design goals, and I hope as time goes on that we see Wizards further expand their design goals in meaningful ways.

Once the design team identified these two goals, they created a venn diagram and brainstormed what iconic motifs and tropes players would expect for both Egypt and Bolas. Mark Rosewater has already written three articles about this, so I won’t focus on the contents of these lists, and instead will focus on the themes and mechanics they produced.

-1/-1 Counters
Wizards has long established that cruel unforgiving worlds are the place to use -1/-1 counters, and in their initial design they relied on the Wither mechanic originally used in Shadowmoor. Having played around with Wither in my own designs, it’s surprising just how much using it constricts your available design space. For instance, you can’t really print deathtouch in an environment with Wither. I’m a bit surprised that Wither made it through the design phase before development was forced to cut it.

That said, there are some really cool uses of -1/-1 counters implemented in Amonkhet. Having already played with custom versions of cards like Soulstinger, it’s exciting to see how such designs function in the environment. I’m particularly fascinated with how the set’s design warped around putting -1/-1 counters on your own creatures. In printing many cards that force their controller to put counters on their own creatures, Wizards created an environment where power and toughness values are artificially inflated. The consequence being that there are more creatures in the format that can live through having counters on them for several turns without dying. This has been the most inherent problem of using -1/-1 counters in a set, and I’m curious to see how well this solution plays. It’s important to note that the design space of these one-off cards wouldn’t be printable in a world with Wither—while wither forces your creatures to put -1/-1 counters on your opponents’ cards, the one-offs reward putting counters on your own creatures. The consequence is that Wither ends up being a downside some of the time, which breaks expectations in an unfun way.

The gameplay around exert is pretty intriguing. The way they’ve implemented it, it’s most useful around turns 3 and 4 (in Limited), allowing you to break through an opponent’s defenses with the power level that Landfall had in original Zendikar. But the interesting thing is that the usefulness generally decreases by turn 6 or so, once defenses have been bolstered. The net result of this looks like players will have many more opportunities to make meaningful tempo swings and gameplay will be more dynamic than we typically see. Players will likely stabilize at a lower life total than in most Limited formats because of the aggressive but fickle qualities of Exert, which I expect will make for more tense games. From a design standpoint, Exert accomplishes this unusual gameplay by impacting multiple turns. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a mechanic that naturally pushed the game into an ebb and flow pattern—arguably the werewolf mechanic promotes similar gameplay, but it still behaves differently since there’s an inevitability with werewolves that isn’t present for exert.

Embalm variants have been tossed around in custom Magic communities for years, and it’s cool to see an official version see print. Like most value mechanics, Embalm is a great way to win grindy matchups. I’m curious to see just how worthwhile all the little exceptions are. Making three changes to a token copy is pretty extreme, and I don’t expect the differences to matter that often. The change that looks most meaningful is the addition of the subtype, since quite a few cards reward Zombie tribal. Losing their mana cost is likely entirely done because they’re printing unique tokens and don’t want to confuse players by having it look as though the tokens can be cast. This is logistics forcing change in design, which is understandable but frustrating. Finally, becoming white doesn’t look like it will ever matter. I don’t mind tossing a flavor bone to Vorthos now and then, but I prefer my mechanics to be relevant. It’s possible that some future set ends up making color matter and I’ll be eating crow, but I don’t see the odds of that being high.

The second value mechanic in the set, Aftermath, is an interesting twist on Flashback that is crippled by its layout. Note that it’s still very useful in gameplay and the cards all function much better than you might expect upon first glance. What I’m more frustrated by are the limitations on design space brought on by the layout of the aftermath template. There is so little space on either side of the card that the effects have to be one or two liners, which results in common effects on rare cards such as Prepare // Fight. It’s a shame that we don’t have more space to play around with. Unlike regular split cards, the aftermath keyword on the back end of these cards eats up space that split cards get to use for more elaborate effects. Overall, I don’t expect Aftermath to come back like split cards do from time to time— I don’t expect to see Aftermath come back for a long time, if ever.

It’s important to acknowledge your biases, and I have to admit that I have a real soft spot for Cycling since I used to play Astral Rift in Standard back during Onslaught block. It’s such a good smoothing mechanic, and I’m always happy to see it. Personally, I’d prefer if Cycling were evergreen instead of Scry. It has a really positive impact on environments because it lets players run niche cards without fear of them being totally dead. Opportunities to hedge are important to deckbuilding metagames, and I’m excited to engage with those like in the old days.

The build-around cards for Cycling all use “whenever you cycle or discard” rather than just “whenever you discard” because Wizards wants the game to be approachable for new players who might not realize cycling counts as discarding. There are two great design lessons here: The first is that clarity trumps consistency; the second is that you have to design for your audience. Sure, there are some extra words in the rules text, and some players have asked if the cards trigger twice from cycle effects, but this pales in comparison to the number of new or casual players who would completely miss that these cards interact and wouldn’t ask about it. Wizards is more interested in making the initial experience as fun as possible. If you're unlearning a misconception that cycling is different from discarding, you're enfranchised enough that Wizards doesn't mind putting you through that—it's unlikely that'll turn you off from buying product. The initial misconception is more likely to trip up someone just getting into the game and is much more likely to make them disinterested in buying what you’re selling.

New World Order (NWO)
For those not familiar with the term, NWO is the idea that a strong majority of your common cards have to follow a series of rules to limit their complexity, with intent to make the game flow more smoothly by avoiding things like reading mistakes and analysis paralysis. R&D have commented that, for several sets, they let a bit too much complexity back into the game, and they intend to be more conscious about complexity creep. We’ve seen all of Kaladesh block take on this less complex design path, and now with Amonkhet we see it pushed just one step further. Critically, many of Amonkhet’s uncommons and rares conform to the NWO restrictions intended for commons.

While I understand the noble intent here, I do worry that there are unintended consequences to this extension. Primarily, it seems like the last two blocks—those that are the lowest complexity we’ve seen in a long time—have pushed power levels up at an alarming rate. When you are forced to make your cards simple, the primary way to make the cards exciting is to make them stronger than what players have already seen. There is less opportunity for nuance or for downside mechanics when NWO principles extend into the higher rarities—like they had to for the implementation of Aftermath. This goes to show that just because a format is powerful that doesn’t mean it is complex, and sometimes simplicity can cause issues with power level. Rosewater has commented that Amonkhet is still too complex for his liking, which makes me nervous to see if future sets will have even more powerful cards or if they will simply have less appeal.

Mechanical Cycles
We’ve examined all the major named mechanics, but there are still several themes I’m interested in exploring. It’s interesting seeing the way R&D tried to merge flavor with mechanics when it comes to the Trials and Cartouches. I think Wizards found a reasonable middle ground, though I’ve seen some custom designers propose cool alternatives. There is a lot of story/lore/flavor behind these cards, and it’s a difficult task to pin down which aspects are important to showcase on cardboard. I strongly believe that if Amonkhet was a +1/+1 counter set, we would have seen Trials that looked more like Zendikar quests, but the bleakness of -1/-1 counters ended up being more important for the atmosphere of the environment.

In a similar way, I think design did a good job translating the important aspects of Gods into Amonkhet. It’s hard to tell when the story details of the Gods were sculpted around the card designs versus when the cards were molded to fit the story, but I consider the result a success. The core aspect that they took away is that these Gods are not enchantment creatures. Having the additional card type would have distracted from the set’s focus and helps distinguish that these Gods walk among the people of Amonkhet. The core functionality remains intact: Gods are powerful immoveable creatures that demand you to meet some criteria before they’ll help you. I do find it unsatisfying that the new Gods can crew vehicles, but this is more of a problem with vehicles than with Gods.

There are a large number of cards in the “build around me” space in Amonkhet, but I’m a bit disappointed all of them support the established archetypes without taking them in new or interesting directions. For example, playing a Burning Vengeance deck in Innistrad was very different from playing a Flashback deck; I don’t see any of the Cycling enablers forcing a different enough gameplay pattern to say you’re playing anything other than a Cycling deck. I suppose the mere fact that I’m comparing to Innistrad may be a good sign for the format, though.

Concluding Thoughts
Like Temmet’s token, it’s about time for me to wrap up. Overall, it seems that Amonkhet has more successes than failures when it comes to the merits of its design. I’m certain there are many more lessons to be learned from the set’s design, but these are the ones that jump out to me prior to playing with the set. As we get to experience the cards, time will tell just how accurate this assessment is.

About the Author
Jake "Piar" Mosby has been involved with various custom Magic communities since the second Great Designer Search. He's facilitated several community projects including MTGSalvation's monthly "You Make The Card" contests. Beyond several personal custom Magic projects, he recently started designing other board games as well. He hosts the custom Magic podcast Cardography, which is available on iTunes and SoundCloud.


  1. I'm surprised they you think of Kaladesh being "low complexity". The golden age of NWO was Zendikar/Innistrad when it was first coming into place. The mechanics from that era are straight forward, and there are many vanilla or nearly vanilla commons. Compared to the complexity of emerge, vehicles, embalm or even just the average word count on commons, there's a fairly significant difference between now and the NWO as intended.

    Aftermath really isn't as effected by NWO as you might think. Granted, the effects are simple but players ALWAYS undervalue the impact and complexity of flashback. That's why an unimpressive looking card like Call of the herd could be format defining, or why Travel Preparations could be first pick worthy. That said, the choice to make some of the cards be both instants and sorceries is maddening. It's hard enough to remember when you have useful cards in your graveyard. The need to remind yourself when you can cast a spell without being totally obvious is worse.

    I like Cycling as much as the next Melvin, but couldn't they have added a little bit of flavor here for a top down set? Cull or Pray or Shift or even just Replace? Especially sense the cards that reference it already trigger off discard, it's not like much backwards compatability is lost. What is the flavor of Drake Haven or Ruthless Sniper or the Cycling lands and what are they doing in Egypt World?

    The Gods
    Honestly, these feel too similar to Theros. On Theros, it made sense to have "non-creature" Gods with enchantment like abilities because they were enchantments. Here, the Gods only make sense in the context of the cards from Theros and feel separate from the set. I would have rather seen Gods like this:

    Hazoret, the Fervant
    Creature - God
    Uncastable, Haste
    Pray R (R, Discard this card: Draw a card)
    When you pray to Hazoret, discard a card and deal 2 damage to target creature or Planeswalker.
    3R: Return Hazoret from your graveyard to the battlefield. You may only activate this ability if you have one or fewer cards in your hand.

    1. Hi Wobbles, glad to see your perspective as always.

      Part of the struggle when talking about complexity is that there are multiple types of complexity that all contribute to the term and muddy the waters. Generally I think of three bad types of complexity: comprehension, tracking, and combat (combat is the newest distinction, which I previously considered part of tracking). All these things are distractions from the good complexities of strategic and tactical complexity. I rate Kaladesh at a lower complexity in the sense that it is quick for a player to understand (grok) the things the set is telling them. The large as-fan for energy is huge in this regard. Word count is a good metric, and it's likely that word count is higher than in the blocks you mention, but many of the words (especially at common) are strung together the same way every time which helps tremendously. When it comes to tracking complexity, the major pain points are keeping track of energy and fabricate objects, which both have pretty easy solutions. Combat complexity is hampered by vehicles and mapping out all the crew options when evaluating the board state, which is a real concern. Kaladesh only really hits 1/3 of the criteria I worry about for complexity. Based on the redflag indicators we've heard about, Kaladesh and Amonkhet still fit the criteria for maximum 20% redflags, which is the biggest NWO adherence criteria.

      Having played with the Aftermath cards at the prerelease, I do think it's possible I was too harsh in that section. Each of the *spells* are simple effects, but that doesn't mean that the *card* is simple since it provides so much additional flexibility in both timing and targets. I am fascinated by the different ways to appeal to players, and the way power and complexity impact that idea. I haven't thought all the way through it, but clearly there's a sweet spot for both power and complexity that maximizes the enjoyment of the audience. My hypothesis is that complexity is close to the mark if a bit over the line, while power has been crossing the line for a while. The problem is, if you cut down on power, where do you generate your appeal?

      I have to step away for a moment, but I'm looking forward to responding to the rest. Quickly, I like your thoughts on Cycling matters, and would like to see a bit more explanation on what you think they got wrong with Gods.

    2. The Theros gods were designed to feel like enchantments that became creatures with enough devotion. That's why they had static and activated abilities. That made sense for a block focused on enchantments and made them feel like more than just regular creatures.

      Then they just ported that idea over to Amonkhet, except they dropped the enchantment part and the devotion part. So now they're just creatures with weird combat restrictions? That makes them feel less special. Meanwhile, they also feel disconnected from the set, because the conditions on the gods aren't really referenced elsewhere. Like, if the conditions linked to the trails, that'd help. But only one directly turns on its respective God. They just feel like a rehash.

    3. I totally agree about the Gods and the Trials thing. I like how they made the Trials and Cartouches interact, but it makes a ton of sense for the Trials to have a positive impact on the Gods' favor.

      I think that creature types having strong identities is a good thing, and by extension I think that having consistency for God is a good thing. I'd also like to see a more consistent look/feel for Elementals (for example). Wizards had to find something consistent with the previous Gods. Obviously I just speak for myself, but the new Gods still seem just as special to me.

    4. When I think of Gods, the important parts to me are: Very hard to kill, very hard to earn the favor of, very powerful abilities. I think the design above checked most of those boxes while still feeling totally different than a Theros God.

  2. I'm eager to talk more about the idea that reducing complexity in a set necessitates increasing power, "and sometimes simplicity can cause issues with power level." Correlation between those two measures of a set/game has never occurred to me before, so I'd like to understand it better.

    I read Piar's 4:59 comment above, to suggest that a game/set requires some combination of complexity and power to appeal to players. If that's the assertion, I would argue that while power can attract initial interest, it is neither complexity nor power that keeps players coming back for more plays, but depth (which is often conflated with complexity, but the two are distinct and only loosely correlated).

    1. The more I think about it, the more I think the complexity discussion is its own topic and there's enough to unpack there that it deserves an entire thread to itself.

    2. My read on the power creep is that it's caused by Wizards trying to satisfy several criteria:

      - New cards dominate the Standard environment. (This is important for sales, obviously, but also for driving overall player interest in the set.)
      - Limited is balanced in a particular way. (Bombs are exciting and powerful, removal is good enough to deal with bombs but not good enough to keep the battlefield clear, common / uncommon creatures are good enough to provide most of a deck's power.)

      If you combine both of these points I suspect it practically forces overall power levels for sets to creep up over time.

      That being said, Wizards did a smart thing for point #1 by designing Amonkhet to synergize with Shadows block-- that way the power level of Amonkhet cards will drop on rotation.

      I agree with Jay that complexity creep is a separate issue. Overall I think Wizards has been doing a good job managing this side lately. For example, in Amonkhet all but one of the embalm commons are vanilla or french vanilla, all but one of the exert commons are french vanilla buffs, none of the cycling commons have side effects, and there aren't any common aftermath cards at all.

    3. One of the power creep/complexity creep issues is that in order to give cards competitive stats, you wind up with a lot of cards with very similar numbers. This makes it more complex because it's less clear to evaluate the board at a glance. For example, if your opponent plays a 3 power white three drop, is it the one that exerts or the one that embalms? Does that 3/3 white flyer in your hand cycle for one mana or two? Is the 3R cycling sorcery in the pack I'm drafting the one that Trumpet Blasts or the one that Threatens? A lot of the mental shortcuts people have when quickly recognizing cards fall apart when these near twins appear in sets.

      It also results in less diverse game play, because the games take on a similar flow when B, R, and G have 4 power four drops, or W, B, and U have high toughness two and three drops. I get that when you're aiming for a balanced draft environment, only certain combinations are viable and multiple colors will get very similar answers. It just comes with some game play costs.

  3. One good reason for scry to be evergreen instead of cycling is that scry has flavor. Cycling has none.

    Actually, now that I think about it that's what bugs me about all of Amonkhet. It's supposed to be top-down Egypt and we get... cycling, -1/-1 counters, weird split flashback, and not-untapping-as-a-cost. Oh, and here, have some not-so-top-down mummies and pyramids.

    Overall I get a very Melvin vibe from the set. Pretty much every mechanic in the set is a fiddly value mechanic. That's not so bad for me, because I'm a Melvin myself, but it sure isn't top-down Egypt.

    (And to anticipate criticism, here are some mechanics that I'd consider to be more top-down and exciting, less fiddly and value-y: energy, vehicles, emerge, most applications of DFCs, anything tribal, raid, devotion. One great way of being exciting and non-fiddly is to be linear, i.e. encourage a particular style of deckbuilding or play to maximize value. None of the mechanics in Amonkhet is linear, unless you count unkeyworded things like Zombie tribal or Astral Slide effects.)

    1. I think this is where ability words would have gone a long way, but instead they shyed away.

      Why are the brick abilities not called Build? And why is there a cycle of Monuments that don't involve brick counters at all?

      Why is the -1/-1 counter on your creatures ability not called Ambitious?

      Why is the "one card or less in hand" mechanic not called Zealous or Fervant?

      If the answer is "then there would be too many mechanics in the set", then maybe that's a sign that there's too much going on. Because all of those mechanics are in the set whether they've named them or not.

    2. Well said.

      I'm willing to let the brick counters go since they're pretty self-explanatory, and "one or fewer cards" only shows up on one card below rare (Thresher Lizard). But I definitely agree about the -1/-1 counter drawback (3 commons, 6 uncommons, 2 rares) and the cycling/discard trigger (3 commons, 5 uncommons, 3 rares). That's an as-fan of about 0.5 in both cases, or once every two packs, which seems like plenty to justify an ability word.

  4. I really appreciate this article and the comments underneath it! It's great to be able to read this kind of discussion.

    What if you tied cycling-needs-flavor in with Gods-need-sacrifices? Is there any way to tighten that connection up?

    1. Abjure? Disavow? Relinquish? Forbear? Abnegate's too fancy. Sacrifice is taken.

    2. A shame "offering" is taken, too. Wobbles' suggestion of "cull" might be close to the mark.

      There's something about cycling that feels like it could be sacrificing useful things, throwing away their potential for a greater power. Maybe making all the gods into Slides doesn't work, but if they could let you pseudo-retrace...? Something there.