A Johnny’s Vengeance – On Fun And Balance (Part 1)

Bo King discusses the meaning of fun and what WotC should do to make new sets even more fun. If it’s fun to explore new strategies, should WotC do more to promote the underplayed and off-the-wall ones?

I’d had a long day at work and got the rare phone call from my friend. You know this friend, the one who lives a block away but you rarely see
because you have rent to grind, an uphill battle with your sleep schedule that you can never quite conquer, and you’re so in love with his sister
that it hurts to see her. That friend. In the rare moment neither of us was focused elsewhere and contemplating each other, it felt good to be invited
over. Sleep could be disappointed again.

The house was quiet, and his kitchen managed to hold enough sound to keep us from waking anyone. The El Presidente loosened us up a bit, even if Jet wasn’t with us. He had a new game he wanted to show me. It was simple enough.
We drank a bit more, played a few rounds, and discovered we’d developed the same strategy for winning. As these nights usually did, the gaming
made way for drinking and the drinking for some heavy talking. It’s these intimate moments I enjoy most with people, whether at a kitchen table
with a friend or relaxing quietly in bed with… her, when it’s all stripped away, and we’re trying to answer those few critical
questions that everything always leads back to.

Did you know Star Trek’s premise involves utopia on Earth? It’s the most mind-blowing concept and one that not only I’m convinced can be
accomplished, but others do, too.


We wondered why we played so many games and what fun actually meant. What is entertainment? More specifically, what is entertaining in games?

Well that seemed easy: Winning. But easy games are boring. Winning after being challenged? Closer. Losing a challenging game can be fun. It’s no
fun to get stomped on. Winning or losing a challenging game you feel you have a chance at… so it’s not necessarily about the result, but
the process. Feels closer. What makes you feel you have a chance at a game? Understanding it? Possibly. Not understanding a game makes it not fun.
People who suck at games still enjoy them. Maybe the illusion of understanding it? Oh damn, Hitchcock. Learning has to be in there somewhere. Progress,
overcoming obstacles.

It took me a while, but I settled on this: Entertainment in a game comes from exploring the threshold of our understanding in the aspects that interest
us when doing so gives us a reasonable chance at victory.

I waved my hand back and forth. “I’m here. This is the edge of my understanding. I jump over. I jump back. I jump over. I jump back. This
is entertainment to me.” I’m sure an outside party wouldn’t have understood a word I was saying, but ol’ Marty was on my
inebriated wavelength. The trick is, as you jump back and over your threshold of understanding, that bar slowly rises as you comprehend it. This is why
games get boring. This is why people aren’t interested in games that don’t explore new concepts and strategies.

Aspects that interest us.
Marty likes exploring. I like military strategy. He plays Fallout, and I play League of Legends. He wants to have to choose which survivors to save.
I’m too busy maximizing my defensive spread with my shield walls to block the arrow volleys and signal the cavalry on the flank. Our interests
take us to separate places where we can push ourselves until we reach our edge of comprehension, and then we go a little further, improvise, and see
what happens. And man, it’s fun. You know what’s not fun? Things that don’t interest us. Yeah, I learned to factor an
equation. Don’t give a damn. I passed math with D’s. I’ll show you how to spin a drumstick through each of your fingers without
stopping. I always did want to be a ninja. Or a ninja turtle. Michelangelo.

Pizza’s better than Pi.

I’d love to be a Magic designer. I missed the Great Designer Search 2 by a week. Won’t happen again. I was delegated to helping a friend
with his efforts instead, but that proved to be just as fun. If I were the designer of a set, I could push the game in the direction I want it to go. I
could reward the skills I want to reward. Not that WotC has officially come out and said exactly what their overarching design goal is (other than to
create a fun and profitable game), but they do give us a block-by-block, and even a set-by-set, look into concepts like Battlecruiser Magic
and theory on new or unique mechanics. Everyone has a pretty solid idea of what the general aim of the game is, but I’d like to be more specific.

I want every card to potentially have a home in a competitive deck.

The most significant reasons I see for making as many card competitive as possible are:

1) Balancing cards creates an even playing field, which rewards intuition, creativity, metagame awareness, and competition. Options mean strategy.
Strategy is fun. I want each card to be a unique weapon. I want my landmines, my barbed wire, my warplanes, lancers, atomic bombs, medics,
Spartans, snipers, huscarls, assassins, Panzers, and ninjas. Especially the ninjas. Theoretically, in a perfectly balanced game, every card would
represent a unique angle with which to approach victory.

2) It gives a use for all of our cards, including old ones. How many people have you seen open a pack, take the rare and a choice uncommon and
give the rest to whoever wanted it? For most players, competitive or otherwise, 80% of their cards sit in boxes. Maybe they’ll flip them over and
proxy up better cards. I know I’ve perfected my shuriken techniques with many a Mindless Null. Making more cards competitive will give them lasting value. Not just immediate value. Not just draft value.

Side Note {

Speaking of old cards, currently my favorite format I play is Off The Top. Take two players, six hours at Denny’s between midnight and 6 am, hot
chocolate, a sundae, and a stack of randomized old commons and uncommons from the breadth of this lovely game. A single library is shared; graveyards
are separate.

One of the players must be named Largo, doesn’t matter which one. Could be you if you felt so inclined, but it’s part of the rules.

You play the cards for what they are, no mental magic here. Lands are whatever card you feel like putting face down, count as all basic lands, and
produce any color of mana.

The sheer number of random interactions and synergies between unrelated commons fifteen years apart is the greatest part of the game. When you cast
Deprive and desperately pull each one of your lands up to see what you’d rather return to your hand, choosing Unyaro Griffin because you mised a
Diabolic Vision last turn and know he’s going to be pulling that Fireball in two turns from that Whispers of the Muse you didn’t know he
had after you set up the library to give yourself the Fireball… you know it just got real.

Real World: Denny’s. Applications pending. }

It seems this entire time, WotC has been subtly pushing strategies it feels are underused. I first took notice when Liliana’s Caress was printed.
This is strictly a better Megrim at one mana less with the added utility of life lost instead of damage.

Megrim was printed as recently as M10 and has been a core staple for almost a decade but has never seen play outside of fringe and casual decks.

Another push from WotC came with the printing of Lead the Stampede, exponentially stronger than its predecessor just a block prior.

This major improvement thrust the strategy into the competitive realm. At least one player I know qualified for Nationals with it.

I like it. In fact I love it. I feel WotC should be proactively pushing fringe strategies incrementally more and more over the coming sets. Obviously,
metagame context plays a huge role in viable strategies, so it’s best to proceed cautiously and deliberately for the sake of balance, but that
being said, there are many strategies I feel should be pushed harder. These are my top 5, in no particular order:

– Umbras were a wonderful effort at giving the classically weak creature Auras a competitive edge. It’s unfortunate that Jace, the Mind Sculptor
in his infinite glory was printed in the same block. They certainly whiffed it on this one, and another go at making creature enchantments that
don’t scream “2-for-1 me!” to the opponent is in order. As non-Aura enchantments go, barring the ridiculous Bitterblossom, I feel
there’s a larger reason they have been unsuccessful as a primary strategy, but more on that in Part 2.

Milling / Alternate win conditions
– I‘m with MaRo. Alternate win conditions broaden a deckbuilder’s thinking and are generally a boon to a strategy game. The pitfall one
must avoid is creating a side game with little interaction between players. Planeswalkers seemed to do just that for a while. A frustrating side game
of overextending and diminishing returns resulted from an unchecked ‘walker since a triggered ultimate usually spelled game over, and many voices
in the community took note of this.

Wizards has, in my opinion, done well with this last round of ‘walkers from Scars block, lessening their impact and promoting more interaction
between players and their allies.

Milling still needs love. Keening Stone just isn’t going to cut it. Decimator Web is cotton candy, chock full of flavor but lacks any substance.
Grindclock got me excited as strictly a better Millstone for a long-term strategy, until I realized this was a new age of Battlecruiser Magic, where
board position is king and artifacts have a target painted on them. The only reason I even tried milling
was because I could cast the spells for free most of the time and get 25% per spell. Free milling may certainly never happen again, and to commit
resources to a milling strategy in this day and age feels futile.

Discard as a victory condition
– Every Johnny bit inside of me squealed with joy with the printing of Quest for the Nihil Stone and Painful Quandary. Liliana’s Caress was a
direct improvement over a predecessor, but these cards were new strategies unto themselves.

Discard has always had the predicament of being a support strategy that petered out after your opponent was delegated to off-the-top mode, where it
lost its entire gravity in a game, and each additional discard spell drawn was almost always a dead draw. There’s a reason Mind Sludge is such a
powerful card: Aside from the obvious, it allows you to play fewer discard spells, decreasing those annoying dead draws after you’ve
ravaged their hand.

All of these annoyances could be alleviated, and discard could be elevated to a primary strategy if we had the proper tools to win the game with it.
Liliana’s Caress was a start, but the fact that we have arguably the best suite of discard available to us in a decade, and Liliana’s
Caress is still not being played says something. In context, JTMS is still around, and if Liliana’s Caress is reprinted in M12 while JTMS is not,
prospects look good (it has been confirmed JTMS will not see print in M12).

– This has shown itself to be narrow enough as a strategy to be ignored unless it can be abused to sneak expensive fatties into play or create a large
amount of value (e.g. Grim Discovery in Vamps, and even then, returning a fetchland for the shuffle effect to turn on a Vampire Nocturnus was arguably
the primary utility). More of the latter, I say. The benefits of competitive recursion are attractive: consistency, threat density, and inevitability.
One-for-one recursion isn’t an attractive or efficient use of resources. Call to Mind and Nature’s Spiral went largely unused this last
year. Sheoldred, Whispering One seems like an excellent start, and I expect to see her crop up in competitive decks. It seems recursion is a great
cantrip on cards doing other things and would be a way to make it more competitive and relevant.

Land destruction
– It’s a crime to see such frail mana bases go unchecked. The fact that three-color decks can still squeeze in Tectonic Edges strikes me as an
imbalance in the game. I won’t go so far and say to reprint Stone Rain, but it’s no coincidence that Naya, Grixis Twin, Darkblade, RUG,
BUG, and Esper Tezzeret Control are all high-tier strategies. This is very tricky ground, but as Randy Buehler said, “I do
think land destruction has a useful role to play in the game of Magic, and I don’t mind when it shows up occasionally; I just want it to be the
exception rather than the rule.”

There’s a reason Tectonic Edge is considered by many pros to be one of the five best cards in Standard. Between all the dual lands from M11, the
dual lands from Scars, manlands, fetchlands, and the multitude of green mana fixers in Standard, the inherent disadvantage of playing three colors is
blurred. Fetchlands have a built-in defense against land destruction that even marginal players can sit on. It’s time for the exception to the

Thanks for reading. Part 2 will be a discussion on what I feel WotC should stop pushing and an exploration of priorities in balance concerning Standard
and Limited.

See Ya Space Cowboy,
Bo King.