Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Midnight Hour is Close At Hand: Designing Around Amass

War of the Spark’s Limited format is strangely built, even accounting for the various deviations non-core sets take away from the “normal” Limited experience. Part of it, and the most visible part, is the huge number of planeswalkers, which requires planeswalker removal to be printed at common and makes Stealth Mission into a kill spell. But a larger part of the puzzle is how Amass warped the environment into making a go-tall strategy reliant on a single token a decent value proposition every time.

Pacifism Sells…But Bolas Isn’t Buying

If we look at Amass from a resource standpoint, most cards with the mechanic divide up their value between what’s printed on the card and the Army token. For example, Lazotep Reaver divides its value for 1{b} between a mediocre 1/2 creature and a +1/+1 counter for your Army. Some cards, like Widespread Brutality, are better if you’ve already produced an Army token, while others, like Vizier of the Scorpion, are better on an empty board.  

In this way, an Army token gradually collects fractions of a card’s worth of value. The advantage of this is that your cards with Amass can’t be 1-for-1ed most of the time, but the disadvantage is that if someone is able to stop your Army from attacking or blocking, all of your cards with Amass are now bad cards with overinflated mana costs.

The problem with this is that many of blue and white’s traditional common removal – Pacifism effects, Narcolepsy lockdown Auras, Avacynian Priest tapping creatures – could lock an Army token of any size for the rest of the game. This would be a miserable play experience if you built a deck in any of the Grixis colors and your opponent suddenly made half of your playables significantly worse for the cost of 3 mana.

Warped World

The various War of the Spark design teams discovered workarounds for the peculiar Limited environment that Amass demanded. 

The most obvious change is that there simply aren’t lockdown Auras. Instead, there’s Kasmina’s Transmutation, a card that makes other creatures significantly less effective but gives Army tokens +1/+1. (It does remove abilities from Viziers that were already on the battlefield but the Army can still attack and block.) Transmutation being one of blue’s scant removal tools in the format also makes Proliferate better because +1/+1 counters stay on the transmuted creature.

White has no Pacifism effect whatsoever, but does have Law-Rune Enforcer. Its ability hits most things that you’d care about, but misses two important targets: Army tokens and your opponent’s Law-Rune Enforcer. This is a beautifully elegant solution: It gives white efficient removal, stops the Amass deck from being a complete feel-bad, and prevents games from devolving into “I tap your tapper” every turn.

A less dramatic change, but one that’s still valuable to look at as a game design lesson, is Callous Dismissal. Having access to cheap instant-speed bounce is a much bigger deal in a world with 5/5 tokens that took three cards to assemble, and making it sorcery speed allows a player to at least get one hit in if they amass onto an already-existing Army token. 


Other formats have been warped by a prominent mechanic (Khans of Tarkir and morph springs to mind) but the changes to War of the Spark’s Limited environment demanded by Amass were fairly dramatic and obvious, which makes it an excellent subject for study. It might be interesting to go into previous sets, especially more modern ones with only a few mechanics, and see how their flagship mechanics influence the rest of the cards around them.

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