Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Comparing the Limited play of Unstable, Ixalan & M25

Ixalan is the least dynamic Limited format we've had in perhaps a decade. The problem is that the only supported archetypes are tribal and there are only four tribes. We get a bit of flexibility in pirates and dinosaurs since they're both three-color tribes, but there is zero cross-tribal support and apart from the difficult-to-draft explore deck and flying deck, there are no alternatives.

Unstable is huge fun even when you ignore the silver-bordered silliness because the various mechanics you're invited to play are less strictly distributed between colors and there are a ton of bridges: Cards that reward players for mixing two different mechanics together.

Steamfloggery, Adorable Kitten, and Boomflinger are just a few examples of Unstable cards that bridge two of the set's mechanics. These cards are Fun with a capital 'F' because they give players the creative control to merge themes and make unique decks.

It may be that you can chart out that there's a Green-White deck that combines Host/Augment with Die Rolling, and that there's a Red-Blue deck that combines Die Rolling with Contraptions. I haven't broken it down. That in itself is telling: I haven't broken it down because it's not obvious. Ixalan's tribal breakdown is obvious—painfully so.

There were a number of opportunities to allow players to mix tribes, particularly since pirate is a class and vampire can be a modifier. Even if there's not a green card that puts a +1/+1 counter on a Merfolk and another on a Dinosaur, just having a few Merfolk Pirates and a legendary Vampire Dinosaur would go a long way toward this end.

Another way to approach this conversation is from the old Linear Versus Modular perspective. Die Rolling is linear to the point of parasitism, as are Contraptions, Augment, and Watermarks-Matter (with a few exceptions), but Unstable is a fairly modular experience: Yes, you'll do better to focus on one or two mechanics and maximize their internal synergy, but you can also just draft all the cards in one or two colors and end up with something fun and viable. Importantly, you'll also find synergies across cards from these parasitic mechanics.

In Ixalan, Merfolk only ever help Merfolk, Vampires only ever combo with Vampires, and so on. These two tribes have a ton of support from earlier Magic, so while they are linear, they're not parasitic. Pirate- and Dinosaur-tribal are parasitic, but raid and enrage are not. Treasure and Explore are relatively modular mechanics, and yet even those are given linear rewards in this block (like Wildgrowth Walker or Deadeye Plunderers), so that every angle you might pursue has a box of a very exact shape that you can only fit very specific cards into. Two notable exceptions: A bunch of Merfolk have Explore, so you can play Merfolk, or Explore, or Merfolk-Explorers; A bunch of Pirates make Treasure or care about artifacts, so you can play Pirates, or Treasure, or Pirates of Treasure Island.

As long as we're examining the deck-building options recent sets give players, I'd be remiss not to mention Masters 25. This set departs from the plan of giving players established archetypes to draft around, instead serving up a heaping helping of nostalgia and card-by-card synergies. Draft enthusiasts are treated to an off-the-rails experience where they get to explore the set, discover the possibilities, and create their own decks. I had a blast yesterday using a Strionic Resonator on my Man-o'-Wars and Cloudblazers to turn my opponent's plan off while won in the air.

There is a downside to this approach, and the fact that M25 is marketed only to the most enfranchised players should be a pretty big hint: Having no rails (archetypes) also means there are far fewer signposts (eg uncommon build-arounds), and that some players will get lost and even fall of the edge. I'm sure it's possible to build an awful M25 deck and if I wanted to see that happen, I'd buy a new player into a draft and grab a bag of popcorn.

While it's easy to dismiss Unstable as a silly format and imagine that means casual players love it and dedicated players don't, the truth is that it is most appealing to those who know the game best: These are the players who will get all the in-jokes and sly-references, and they are the most desperate to see Magic do something truly new and unusual. New players wouldn't do much better accessing Unstable than they would Time Spiral because the set is developed for enfranchised players, references tons of old mechanics, and does things normal Magic doesn't—which is the opposite of what you want to show someone while they're still building up their sense of what the game is and isn't.

Though I criticize Ixalan's draftability (despite absolutely loving all the dinosaurs and pirates running around, as well as the block's setting and a number of brilliant design choices), it's clearly a hugely accessible set. So while I can point to these other sets as better for drafting, how confidently can I conclude that future expansion sets should be more like Unstable or M25 and less like Ixalan? 100%, but that's cheating—I'm 100% sure future sets should be more like our exemplars here, but how much? My instinct lands between 40% and 60%.

Major expansions absolutely must be accessible, and one of the prime requirements for accessibility is having clear signposts. Merfolk Mistbinder is a mighty clear sign that you can play blue and green and take Merfolk and end up with a solid deck. Backing that two-color uncommon up with some spicy rares like Deeproot Elite, and some commons like Jade Bearer sends a strong enough message that this is a thing you can do. Including 6-12 cards like that for each two-color pair is a fine thing to do to help players see that the set offers them a lot of options without having to look very hard or know very much. When too much of a set is dedicated to its archetypes (Ixalan has 25 merfolk or merfolk-rewards, 25 vampire, 47 pirate, & 51 dinosaur: 148 of 269 cards) and strictly so—without bridges that allow a player to mix-and-match—then it goes on rails.

• Not all of a set's archetypes can play on the same axis. Theros allowed you to play Minotaur-tribal in the same deck that was playing Monsters and Bestow.

• Where a set's archetypes do play on the same axis, you need bridge cards that make mixing them viable. Lorwyn's Kithkin Greatheart is a simple example.

• If you spend too many cards supporting a given archetype, there won't be enough space left to support creative drafting, the way Spider Spawning and Halimar Excavator do.

• Not all ten archetypes have to be signposted, just enough to let players feel like they know what they're doing. You can then signpost other important parts of your game, like using landfall to reward players for playing enough land in their deck.

Did you feel like any of the exemplar sets were more rigid or loose than I did? Have you spotted other methods to give new players ground on which to stand? Are their other ways to challenge and surprise longer-standing players that don't put off new ones?


  1. Excellent points. For all the mistakes of Lorwyn, it really did promote cross-tribal synergies, both with mixed tribal cards and with Changelings.

    1. The Future of Tribal:
      Should I play Merfolk Soldiers or Merfolk Wizards?
      Should I play BW life-matters Vampires or BR aggro Vampires?
      Should I stick to Mono-Green Human Shamans, or include red Shamans to get some of that Hound-Human synergy in there?

    2. Nice piece, Jay!

      Beyond clearly labeled cross tribe synergies, Lorwyn also had very distinct mechanical things each tribe was trying to do, that other tribes could do (tapping merfolk, faeries doing things when it wasn't their turn, treefolk liking trees, etc.). Draft was on the rails, but there was nuance to what you were drafting beyond caring exclusively about pulling cards that mentioned your choice of tribe. There was very little of that in Ixalan, other than raid generally caring about attacking. white dinos never cared about life, green merfolk only incidentally cared about increasing toughness...

    3. Ugh, don't get me started.

      "Hmm, I know what we can do for our blue-green faction... a +1/+1 counters theme! Nobody's ever seen that before!"

    4. Incidental Tribal is something I meant to write about almost exactly one year ago: The idea of a tribe that plays well together but because all the cards support a certain mechanical synergy rather than simply naming their subtype over and over again.

    5. There were cards in Ixalan that specifically called out tribes, but to be honest isn't that what Ixalan mostly did? Even the way they executed on the themes, they made sure they were as flexible as possible. It's why we got white life payments (very insteresting take on white self sacrifice by the way. YOU self sacrificing to help your creatures is a very interesting design space flavorwise in my opinion) instead of a more obvious execution of lifegain matters-- things that care about you gaining life would only go in a lifegain deck, but Adanto Vanguard for example could go in anything while still making lifegain matter. Which is an important distinction to make when the theme you're working with tends to be heavily criticized for being overly linear.

      Anyway, I also agree that tribal decks tied together more by an overarching strategy rather than calling out creature type is something very important and interesting to me as well. I first noticed Wizards executing on that during SOI, especially when comparing to the first Innistrad block. Vampires weren't just a RB aggro deck like in the first block, they were a discard/madness aggro deck that played cards that were vampires, matching the set themes while giving them a distinct identity. There can still be cards that care about vampires, but I like the idea that a tribe naturally comes together without thinking about their types. You want to play incorrigible youths in the same deck as Heir of Falkenrath inherently.

    6. I don't think that's what Ixalan did at all. They played around with the idea a bit, but could have done WAY more. For example, I really liked the life payment side of the vampires, but here are the cards that utilized it:

      Adanto Vanguard (U)
      Arguel's Blood Fast (R)
      Glorifier of Dusk (U)
      Sword-Point Diplomacy (R)
      Vona, Butcher of Magan (M)

      That's two uncommons, a niche rare, an unplayable rare, and a mythic. If a theme isn't present at common, it's not really present.

      Plus, it was pretty obvious when to use most of these activations. Is my Adanto Vanguard going to die? Then I'll pay 4 life instead. It hardly utilized the interaction between lifegain and life payment because the choices were so dramatic. A card with an ability like Pay 2: +1/+0 (only activate twice per turn) would be usable in any deck, but would overperform in a deck like Vampires that has large amounts of lifelink. That's the sort of nuance that Ixalan lacked.

      While we're at it, what were all of the tribal 'subthemes'?

      Vampires - Lifelink + Life payment
      Merfolk - +1/+1 Counters. Evasion?
      Dinosaurs - Big stuff + Enrage
      Pirates - Small stuff + Treasure

      Merfolk's counters rarely came up in any context other than making your creatures bigger. Shapers of Nature is the only relevant non-rare that interacts with counters, but it also just adds the counters so you don't need synergy with the rest of your deck.

      Enrage was barely relevant as well. The common creatures were dull (life gain / damage). Raptor Hatchling is flavorful, but functionally very similar to a death trigger. Ranging Raptors is just oddly positioned. Bellowing Aegisaur simply doesn't synergize with the rest of dinos, and is the wrong color to overlap with Merfolk's counter theme.

      Treasure was cool but underutilized in XLN. The big reason treasure has worked well in RIX is that there are lots of powerful, splashable bombs which were very sparse in XLN. Outside of bombs, there could have been an incentive to splash inside of pirates or some playable treasure-matters cards. Ruthless Knave is a good example, but Deadeye Plunderers is the whole package just like Shapers of Nature - no synergy needed.

      Sorry, that felt like a rant.

      tl;dr Ixalan was pretty bad.

    7. I want to say up don't that I'm absolutely not arguing Ixalan executed on its themes or tools perfectly. I never meant that.

      The reason life payment cards show up on higher rarities is because they aren't the deck's "core"-- they're the payoff. By gaining life, you can use your Glorifier more often.

      Another point is that it's important to note even tribal cards are not that many in the set outside of the larger factions, which each had a dedicated tribal archetype in limited. It's been a while, but if I recall, for example, in white I believe there are only 3 or 4 cards that care about vampires you control. Conversely, there are many cards that make 1/1 lifelinkers or otherwise gain life, which is the deck's main source of lifegain (chosen due to tokens being more modular than dedicated lifegain cards). It's possible they could have designed better individual cards, but the theory is there. I also feel the ability you mentioned is similar in role to Glorifier of Dusk.

      Ixalan's fast limited format, presumably as a safeguard to prevent board stalls from RIX and just generally what happens in creature tribal strategies, did hurt the place patterns they probably intended for life payment cards. It made any subtler strategies, which are necesssary in tribal sets so players can find hidden synergies, not matter all. But I think that's a different and larger issue than them not using the "tribal decks that don't just reference creature type" technology.

      It's also important to note that the dinosaur and pirates deck's each had 3 distinct strategies, though unlike merfolk and vampires, one of each WAS an actual tribal deck, where the goal was to take all the "if you control a type" cards. It's commonly thought that there's UG Merfolk, WB vampires, Naya dinosaurs, and Grixis pirates, but actually those are further divided into six archetypes.

      I also don't think the number was too low on the pay off/theme cards, but I'm not sure. I just know it isn't necessary to convey a strategy by having a ton of cards say the words on itp. There are only two cards that care about exploring in Ixalan iirc, but we were still able to tell that GB was an explorer deck, for example.

    8. I think the thing that exacerbates Ixalan's weaknesses is the terribly low power-level of the set. There are only 4 black cards in Ixalan with explicit Vampire synergy, but the power-level of the format is so low that Anointed Deacon is among the best commons - and it forces you to make sure the rest of your deck is heavy on Vampires. River Herald's Boon tells a similar story. So much of each pack was actually unplayable that the small amount of the set that was devoted to tribal was the only part that actually mattered.

      I'd like to hear you elaborate a little bit more on the distinct strategies of each of the tri-color tribes. I get that there are subsets of color pairs, but most of them either weren't real decks or played out very similarly.

      And a side note that while there were signals that GB was supposed to be an explore deck, realistically it wasn't a deck at all. GB and UW supported no tribes and were essentially undraftable.

    9. I agree that I think a lot of Ixalan's problems come from trying to make a lower power level to enable it's strategies. In my experience, I was shocked at how little tribes actually mattered and how many more games were decided by things like Mark of the Vampire on a evasive creature that couldn't be answered fast enough. In that respect, it's why I don't feel that Ixalan's issue is that it was "too tribal focused".

      The same issue is of course why something like Herald's Boon becomes so game defining, but I would say it's a symptom of a different and larger design issue, rather than something like there not being enough Vampire Pirates, for example. I think tribal can do be done well and less hamfistedly by simply making good standalone cards that happen to have a tribe marker. I'm not sure what the compromise has to be to enable that, as I understand why Ixalan"s card wuality is what it is, but I feel there's a way.

      Dinosaurs had a defensive WG deck which is the one they intended would play the Vampire lifegain cards to help stalls the game, but the former was way too fast to allow that deck to work. There was also the enrage deck in RG, which wanted the fight and burn all decks wanted. Personally I think the RG deck didn't work well because it was too tricksy and clever for such a straightforward format, exmplified by that card I forgot the name of that pings a thing and gives it trample. And WR was the deeicated tribal colors, where your goal was to play dinosaurs matter cards in a linear aggressive strategy.

      Pirates had UR tempo combining blue's evasive Merfolk, pirates, etc. As well as both color's spells to do what tempo does. UB was the treasure deck, again the slow deck that didn't work well until RIX. I actually also think this was the least we'll synergized either other decks, but there was a lot of treasure making to make up for it. And finally RB was the pirates deck, just bash face with all creatures that are pirates.

      I think it's, again, a separate issue if the decks weren't executed on. I'm not necessarily defending that. I will say that sometimes strategies just don't work in the real world in the end, so I dont necessarily expect all the strategies to work well, I just recognise that they were incorporated. They were very careful not to make too many dedicated payoffs that needed you to do the thing or it was worthless because all that space was taken by tribal cards.

      The other strategies had to be more opened ended to ensure people could reasonably play the cards. Again, why they chose the life payment in white instead of something more obvious like "when you gain life" triggers, for example.

  2. Excellent stuff.

    I think the big takeaway for Unstable is that the design wasn't afraid to spread its mechanics across the colors. Instead of siloing mechanics by colors, they instead changed the feel of the mechanics by color, having them emphasize or explore different areas of the design space, and thus creating decks that play differently while still being compatible with each other. That's a great lesson for future sets.

    I agree that signposting is extremely important. That was something Unstable was lacking in a bit, absolutely. But I also think it's a mistake to jam gold uncommons into every set as the signposts. I was a big fan of Innistrad's "gold" flashback cards, which hinted at the archetypes in the set without being explicit, alongside the more on-rails tribal mechanics and cards like Burning Vengeance. The mixture here was great for new players and established players alike. New players were likely to pursue tribal themes that were more clearly delineated, while experienced players could 'move on' from those themes to find the more subtle ones.

    Ixalan did a good job here too, by showing that even if we use gold uncommons, we don't need to do all ten. The {W}{U} flying theme, and the {G}{B} explore theme, were also pretty linear but were still left to be discovered by players. Born of the Gods had a nice way of handling this too, with its imbalanced mixture of activated abilities and gold cards at uncommon. This extra variation helps make sets less stale and produce more discovery moments.

    I'm definitely striving to capture more of the Unstable Fun in my designs. Experimenting with signposting for these looser archetypes will be fun.

  3. For my GDS3 essay on the mechanic that didn't give a good first impression, I used Meld (Same as MaRo it turned out). But what I did with it the essay is to point out how Unstable "fixed" meld and made it fun and playable. I concluded that essay but say that if they weren't already figuring out how to move that mechanic into black border, I'd eat a half-kitten, half-shoe. Host-augment may be my favorite mechanic they've ever introduced.

  4. What are people's favorite draft formats?

    1. Besides the ones everyone cites (Triple innistrad and triple ROE), Triple Kaladesh, original Ravnica block (Ravnica, Guildpact, Dissention), triple Khans, and SOI/EMN come to mind.

    2. It may be a nostalgia thing, but I also really enjoyed triple Shards of Alara.

    3. Triple Kaladesh is probably my favorite draft format. Other good ones people haven't mentioned yet are Modern Masters 1 and Iconic Masters was pretty great as well, imo.

      Also worth mentioning that I really don't like what I've played of A25.

    4. I am a HUGE fan of 3x SOK, although that is a very acquired taste.

    5. MBS, SOM, SOM and NPH, MBS, SOM are hands down my favorite WOTC created limited environments, though I couldn't tell you which of those two I prefer. I have a cube that allows me to draft either, and I tend to alternate.

      I have many customized cubes that I really enjoy to. My Un-cube is mostly Unstable but with Conspiracies and a few cards from earlier Un-sets. Unstable has a lot of just flat bad designs so I tried to replace them while maintaining most of the mechanics. (Unstable is, to me, clearly the best Magic set in a long time, but I really wish someone with a developers eye had gone over it and polished it. There are some obvious misses, in a set that could very easily have been the best draft set ever.)

      My "traditional cube" and a few cubes I've made in the style of Masters sets are also favorites of mine.

    6. Tommy my main wish was that NPH didn't have porcelain Legionnaire at bloody common...

    7. Otherwise KTKx3 (I have two playsets of duneblasts just from drafting) and HOU/HOU/AMK are my favourites

    8. Porcelain Legionaire as a common is nuts, although of note, being a common in one pack is a lot more like being an uncommon.

      In practice, it rarely mattered, because the biggest weakness of the set (imo) was that it revolved a bit too much around tons of one toughness creatures and card advantage obtained by killings lots of one toughness creatures with a million Blisterstick Shaman effects.

  5. I feel like it's a very huge misconception that triple Ixalan's problems lied in it being "too tribal" or not enough cross tribe synergy. In fact, I actually feel like there's very little tribal at all! At least compared to Lorwyn, for example. They don't have Vampire cards that care about pirates like Lorwyn did because the technology for tribal set building and play design has evolved beyond the need to do that. Perhaps it can be said that it's a design issue that people percieve the tribalness to be way higher or more important than it actually is in and of itself, but then I have to ask what's the answer for making a tribal set where people don't percieve themselves as being "on rails"? I think the technology they were tapping into (making each tribe not about the tribe but about the strategy the tribe is about, i.e. lifegain vampires, counters merfolk, the three subthemes for each for dinos and pirates one of which for each WAS actually a dedicated tribal strategy) was the answer, but apparently it wasnt, or it was not executed well.

    I've been under the impression that card quality was more Ixalan's issue. Creatures were generally made less than awesome to encourage tribal synergies to make them better (but there aren't really that many dedicated tribal cards to avoid the on rails problem), and removal was made less than stellar to encourage creature play, which all makes a lot of sense if tribal is your theme. However, low numbers of playable excacerbate the issue of needing to get those tribe matter cards to make your cards better (LSV cites the difference between 3 Ixalan merfolk versus RIX merfolk, for example, since merfolk's stronger and easy to acquire payoff cards only shows up in the single Ixalan pack), and lack of quality removal makes it harder for the less than stellar decks to catch up to those who get a synergy, like a lifelink creature with One with the Wind.

    1. Yep. I'm of the opinion that weak sets make weak limited formats. The fewer strong playables (removal or creature) just results in play patterns where the first player to assemble a strong synergy just wins the game. Lorwyn, Avacyn Restored, Masques, Theros, and most of the old core sets all managed to have uncompelling limited play despite not having anything majorly in common besides this general weakening of of the cards in the block. One of the exceptions is Kamigawa, which managed to do tribal fairly well and succeed despite being a generally weaker set.

    2. To my eye, the best sets are the ones where the quality of your deck depends on the quality of your mediocre cards, rather than the best cards. Ideally, the quality of the mediocre cards should depend a lot on interesting synergies and the other cards in your deck.

      The more I can say "This one time, I had a deck that had 4 copies of this interesting common, and that let me do XYZ so the deck was great" and the fewer times I say "This one time I opened two Elite Scaleguards so my deck was great" the better.

  6. Oh, interesting. Very well put. I only played these sets casually so I don't have an extensive experience.

    My impression of Lorwyn is that it had too much cross-over, I was always sad that I had an elf that cared about giants but no giants or whatever. Somehow unstable avoided this, because it felt like lots of the themes were fine to use in small amounts, e.g. a dice rolling card if you had only none or one or two cards that cared about it. It felt fun -- you could commit to an archetype or two, but it was more of a choice. It sounds like Ixilan tried to allow you to draft more combinations while remaining tribal, but it didn't work as well.

  7. Considering that our unstable drafts have all been won by U/B control, it's hard to say, but it definitely FEELS right. My cousin played 5c Urza (two Urzas, because swag), and did quite well at finding fixing and using a die-rolling theme that he could capitalize on.

    M25 is probably the most unusual draft format (aside from Unstable and Conspiracies) since time spiral block. It relies on the drafter to be more flexible and observant, by itself being more flexible. I've seriously enjoyed it, because there are definitely archetypes, but they don't always come out the same way. Even if you draft R/B there times, it could come out 5x Lacerator aggro, Fallen Angel/Threaten aggro, or just Chupacabra, reduce to Ash control.

    I think the biggest necessity is less locked-in archetypes. Khans had clans, but had enough fixing to play 5c, enough build-arounds for 2c, and could support slow and fast decks. Hour of devestation was similar, Obelisk Spider is totally a G/B counters card, but it's just good by itself. It gets better when you add more counters synergies, but can stand on it's own. The same for bloodwater entity. River Hoopoe is just a control/ramp card, with a really great payoff, which is super open-ended.

  8. Would the artisans like to design and draft a set as a group? Would be about 15-20 cards each of varying rarities.

    1. When I have time again, that sounds cool.
      I can't find the post rn, but many years ago I ran a draft where everyone designed three packs of cards, developed someone else's and then drafted and played them on the spot. It was pretty great.

    2. Years ago I spent a while working on a Dominion-esque game where the 10 "kingdom" cards started out blank and the players designed them as the game went on, and you got points for people buying into your designs, etc.