When you think of a deck “engine,” what comes to mind?
Is it the fueling of resources, a la Affinity?
Is it the fueling via tutors, a la Tooth and Nail?
Is it the synergy of types, such as Kamigawa Block Legends decks?
All of these decks work with one another in different ways. Whenever you think of two cards providing each other an advantage (fueling a win condition with an Urzatron piece, making another spell cheaper as a result of it being play), then that is a part of the deck’s engine to win.
Some engines are tougher to spot. Jushi Apprentice by himself was an engine during the end of Mirrodin’s life in Standard, after Affinity was finally banned. The local tournament scene was already in shambles, but Blue mages battled on the backs of the most powerful creatures in the format, Meloku and Memnarch.
Card advantage is the oldest advantage in the book, and things were simple enough back then that Jushi Apprentice was all it took.
To think of the flipside to that argument, Black / Green Rats – powered by the amazing Chittering Rats – was the reverse form of card advantage – you drew no extra cards, but they discarded and/or drew less cards than you did, hence giving you the advantage. And it was good enough for a first place at many Nationals tournaments.
But what goes into the design of these engines? I work as a CCG developer for a game development company, and I get a look (and an opinion) on the state of new card games in progress. The principles and themes present in Magic extend far beyond its brand, and that means in other games you’ll have broken cards, in other games you’ll have amazing combos, and in other games you’ll be forced to create new sets which must entice and balance at the same time.
Re-Designing and Developing Engines
When developing card games, an aspect most don’t think about is the idea that combo is simply unfun for many players. Its presence in the Organized Play metagame can simply drive players away from the game.
Back when only Affinity and Tooth and Nail mattered, one created an almost unstoppable clock (extreme Tempo Engine) and the other created an almost unstoppable combo creation with great reach (extreme Combo Engine). Between the two, the disruption factor was high – every deck had it out for them. But just to show how powerful they were, they remained the best decks even after they began ruling the scene.
The idea that Heartbeat – the best deck out of the Team PTQ season – got completely smashed at Regionals (or simply unplayed), is a developer’s dream. Trust me when I say they were high-fiving at the office the weekend following Regionals. The results were in, and the winners were incredibly varied across a huge number of archetypes. Nothing “purely dominated,” but several huge contenders were found: Ghost Husk is too good to ignore, and G/R Beats in all forms is impressive enough to pay attention to.
You want powerful concoctions to make an impact, and while the Future Future League of Wizards R&D may not have seen Heartbeat of Spring coming, I’m sure they could feel the underlying power. You don’t simply give the most powerful mana multiplier ever made in the “right” color and not expect sparks to fly.
It’s certainly acceptable that a combo deck emerges. You simply don’t want them to stay. Heartbeat of Spring combo decks are more fragile than Tooth and Nail of old (Plow Under alone was enough to warp a format), and with good reason – Wizards of the Coast is more adept at which cards can impact the format, and they give them to us a little at a time. This includes allowing us Wildfire and Hypnotic Specter while removing truly warping cards like Plow Under.
Giving us a glimpse of powerful decks – and then leaving them behind – describes the ability to give the playerbase a taste of something great… and then ending that period before it gets stale and frustrating.
For example, the Urzatron lands were an admitted developer mistake. Forsythe says they never used Urzatron in a Wildfire deck, which was certainly understandable in terms of missing it, but also something we’re going to be living with until Tenth Edition.
Take this foreboding paragraph from the Ninth Edition wrap-up article:
The only cards we kind of regret reprinting in Ninth are the “Urzatron”—Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power Plant, and Urza’s Tower. When we were putting the set together, the “Tron” was not in vogue yet – most Tooth and Nail decks were still using Cloudposts. We think the cards are generally cool and fun and definitely enable all kinds of shenanigans in casual play, but that tournament players have recently been getting frustrated with the swinginess of a Tron assembled early in the game. I don’t think they’ll be that good once Mirrodin block rotates out, taking Sylvan Scrying, Memnarch, and Mindslaver with it, but it is mildly annoying that Tooth and Nail and Blue Tron decks will still be forces to be reckoned with in post-Ninth Nationals tournaments.
The most important difference is that bringing Wildfire back in the format was a choice. Leaving Urzatron in Standard was an unseen mistake.
The Most Powerful Designer/Developer Creations In The Past Two Years Are…
Cranial Extraction and Pithing Needle. The latter in particular. I’m hoping that Pithing Needle makes Tenth Edition. This incredibly powerful and versatile (and almost necessary) artifact goes in practically every sideboard in existence, and demands nothing less than $25 and up no matter where you find it. To reprint this would give another two years of shutting down fabulous activated abilities, and as such give the Wizards designers room to grow and “threaten” a higher power level.
Cranial Extraction has been around in various forms (Lobotomy is a good example), and since it’s arcane it won’t be returning any time soon. But I certainly hope a replacement is on its way. We currently have plenty of ways of removing problems from the game (Cranial Extraction, Eradicate, Scour, Quash, etc), but those answers will leave with the Champions of Kamigawa block.
It will be very interesting to see what surprises are in both Coldsnap and (especially) Time Spiral that will hope to measure up to the amazing success Ravnica has become. This block is one of the best of all time – it has an incredible metagame, a great power level, fantastic flavor, and is just plain fun to play. I’ve never had so much fun in Limited and Constructed as I am having right now.
My fingers are crossed for the future of Magic, and what engines they may hold.
Evan “misterorange” Erwin
dubya dubya dubya dot misterorange dot com
eerwin +at+ gmail +dot+ com
Written while listening to Regina Spektor’s “Begin to Hope”