Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Eternal Analysis 017—Shift

Shift is Eternal's suspend mechanic, simplified in some ways and… weird in others. Introduced in the sixth full set, Dark Frontier, along with Onslaught, and Twist.

Shift N means you can pay N to play the unit suspended for 3 turns. You still need to met the influence requirements—not that that's stated anywhere—but usually it costs less to shift a unit than to play it normally. Shifting always lasts 3 turns, which is a nice simplification: You really never want to have a keyword mechanic with two variables and this way don't have to memorize every card to know how long your unit will be in limbo.

Here's where Dire Wolf took shift in a different direction than suspend: Eternal doesn't have the concept of exile, so when you shift a unit, you play it (triggering any effects that care about units being played) and it sits on the board in one of your unit spots. It just can't attack, or block, or "be selected" until it emerges. Here's where things get ugly.

Remember how fiddly protection is in Magic, how it can save your Black Knight from Path to Exile but not Day of Judgment? Well, I can't Annihilate your shifted Tremorshocker, but it still dies to Harsh Rule (yours or mine). You can boost it with Unlock Potential and I can shrink it with Copperhall Bailiff. Can you sacrifice it to Devour? I don't… think so? Your Mob Rule does count it. If you renown Deadeye, you can equip a weapon to it, but I don't think you can with Call to Arms. The unit is there, but it's not. You know, like all-star Magic mechanic, phasing. [sarcasm]

At the start of the third turn after you shift your unit, it emerges, becoming a normal unit and not triggering any summon abilities or when-played triggers (because it did those three turns back). It can attack immediately, but not because it gains charge, just because it's been in play long enough. Instead, it gains unblockable for the turn. What? Where did that come from? I don't know. It feels pretty random. It is fun, though, and offers a nice incentive to shift a unit when you might not otherwise. Speaking of which…

15 of the 38 shiftable units cost more to shift than to play normally (and three cost the same either way). That's because you're paying for a bonus effect, a kicker if you will. It's reasonable enough to use alternate-cost mechanics both as cost-reduction and kicker effects, though it's definitely not a thematic or aesthetic win to tie them to… whatever shifting is. Oh, but here's the real weird part: several of the cards that cost as much or more to shift than play actually don't have a kicker effect for shifting them. Why would you shift them, you ask? Because they have static abilities that affect the game whether they're shifted or not, and your opponent can't kill them as easily while they're phased out. I mean shifted. That's elegant and pretty clever. Given the situation.

There are also a bunch of support cards that reward you for shifting, enable shifting, reduce time spent shifted, or shift cards for you. That's cool. You want people to be able to build decks around your cool new mechanic, right? Oh, but what if those decks are too much fun? Dire Wolf decided to prevent a fun overload by including a number of shift hate cards. And one that's just awful unless you can prevent your opponent from playing the game: fun!

So do I love shift or hate it? I'm all over the place, right? First of all, give up on binary constructs, you're smarter than that. I'm in the middle. I've played with shift a fair bit; there are strong cards and weak ones. Shifting a Direwood Lurker for 6 and then drawing a power card the next turn sucks. But shifting Avalanche Yeti for 6 is nuts. It can be frustrating watching your opponent's Submerged Titan grow, knowing that it's going to smack you unblockably when it emerges and that the Suffocate that could kill it while it's still small is useless. But sometimes that tension motivates exciting action, or at least builds up suspense as you hope to draw an effective counter. Shift is flawed, but interesting.

This is a neat choice.
And while I call out some less than ideal features of the mechanic, I'm not sure there's a better execution for Eternal: I don't think we want to create an exile zone where shifted units are hidden away (that's already a problem with relics); and while the mechanic would be simpler and more intuitive without unblockability, it adds notable inherent value. I would have introduced shift using just one execution rather than three, and I would've left out the counter cards for later. I would've reduced the pairing of summon effects and shift effects, and I would've postponed the smashing together of warp and shift (7 cards combine them!).

Eternal makes more complicated cards on average than Magic, and it gets away with that to some extent by hiding text in keyword pop-ups, but as a game where Constructed === Legacy, all those words and all that complexity quickly become a barrier for new players. Dark Frontier is not a great place for new players to discover Eternal. That's a damn shame because approachability was a major advantage the game had over Magic early on.


  1. So it sounds like Shift is basically Hexproof + Pacifism for 3 turns?

    1. Followed by unblockability, and paired with alternate costs and effects

  2. I'd be remiss to totally ignore the ability to trigger a unit's expensive shift ability: I can Reweave a one-drop or turn two to get Ghar, Master Sandmage's huge silence effect, or Vishni, Lethrai Highblood's three elves. That's a cool combo. It also sucks to play against because there's no counter.