Black Magic – Looking at the M10 Changes, and Cascade

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Tuesday, June 16th – It seems that everyone is talking about the rules changes looming with the release of M10, and Sam Black is no exception. He shares his thoughts on everything from the zone names to the combat step. He also examines Cascade from a design mechanic, and discusses the state of Standard going forward.

I want to write about the M10 rules changes. I agree with everything Patrick Chapin has already said, so it’s tricky to do this without just saying the same things again, but I feel like there has been enough of a negative backlash that it’s important for me to weigh in as well. I’m going to go through things in order and try to focus on bringing up points he hasn’t already explicitly stated.

First, mulligans. He’s said that this is much better for tournament players, but didn’t really spell out why. I’ve seen people criticize, claiming that going first is already an advantage, and this takes away some of the advantage of going second. While there is some truth to that, the advantage of waiting to see how your opponent mulligans is so minimal that it is often probably wrong to do so due to the increased risk of a draft if you wait longer to actually start playing your match because you’re not shuffling while your opponent is. The reason this is better for tournaments is the same, and very simple: it just speeds up the tournaments. Even when your round doesn’t go to time and it isn’t preventing a draw, it’s still helping everything proceed faster, which may make some tournaments take less time, which will make everyone (especially TO’s) happier. Waiting for your opponent to resolve all of their mulligans may be strategically advantageous, but it isn’t fun. This change decreases waiting and makes the game more fun.

Second, names of zones and casting. The two primary arguments against this seem to be, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “Those sound dumb.” First, it is broke. The system is inconsistent in a way that doesn’t make sense. Flavorful terms are used for some things and not for others, as Wizards has stated, and the word “play” leads to confusion because it has so many meanings, and “removed from the game” is just inaccurately named. The new names really are a fix. As for sounding dumb… well, you’re not used to them, which is most of the problem, but I will admit that I would prefer “field” to “battlefield,” as it’s shorter and some boards don’t look much like battles, even if that is theoretically what’s always going on. Responding to a random other complaint I’ve seen, “it seems strange to Exile things other than creatures”… um, graveyard much? The names aren’t going to be perfect, but I do think it’s correct to name the zones and bring back the term “cast.” (Although I would avoid using “successfully cast” to mean, “added to the stack” – that was the worst.) Oh, and hurray for “activate,” as that should also strictly increase clarity.

I don’t think I’ve seen any complaints about the “End Step” rather than “End of Turn Step.” I think we can all agree that that is a good change with no real cost. It’s even shorter.

Mana pools. I’m pretty conflicted on this change. If Magic hadn’t been around and I was one of the original playtesters and someone suggested cutting Mana Burn, yes, definitely, get rid of it. When the game’s already been out for over 15 years and a lot of cards have been designed around the mechanic, it’s a little less clear.

First of all, the reason to get rid of it: With CCGs in general at this point it has become clear that fewer external rules are better. You want to sit someone down, tell them how turns work, tell them the object of the game and how to use their cards, and let them start reading their cards and start playing. Minor things that happen in weird corner cases should be avoided. This is an entire extra rule players need to learn that won’t come up in 90% of the games they play. When it doesn’t, it’s usually because their opponent is being difficult. For example, they tried to Terror a Black creature and their opponent says they can’t do it, and doesn’t let them untap their lands, and the whole situation is just unpleasant.

Mana Burn is a bad rule that makes the game worse. It’s needlessly complex and inelegant. Removing it is an excellent way to fight complexity creep. While it may sound odd at first, Patrick’s point about needing to get rid of Mana Burn to allow things like Planeswalkers is actually a great way to look at it. A game can only have so many rules, and Mana Burn is getting in the way of other more interesting rules.

This is not the first rules change in Magic to dramatically alter the strength of cards (that was probably the creation of the “damage on the stack” rule), but it certainly makes cards like Mana Drain and Cathodian a lot better than they were intended to be. Overall, I think it’s probably still worth getting rid of it. It’s just regrettable that it couldn’t have been done earlier.

There is one very significant line of play that this opens up that hasn’t been discussed anywhere that I’ve seen. Say it’s your opponent’s end step. You’re playing the Faeries mirror and you have 8 lands. You want to cast Mistbind Clique. Consider tapping 5 lands and leaving UUU up. At this point your opponent may look at your untapped lands and, without asking anything, cast Cryptic Command, thinking you don’t have mana to Cryptic back, or, better yet, wanting as much mana untapped on your turn as possible, may cast Broken Ambitions for 4, at which point you can pay with the unspecified floating mana. Note that I suggest leaving UUU up so that you can cast Cryptic Command without any question about what color of mana you floated from your first 5, though in reality it probably doesn’t matter as long as there was 2 Blue in those lands.

The best part is that if they do nothing, you just move on to your untap step, untap all your lands, and never have to mention that you ever made the play or had the extra mana.

Is this play taking advantage of a lack of communication? Yes. Does that make it a violation of the communication guideline? I certainly don’t believe so. I’m reasonably certain this play is legal, though I would welcome correction on the forums if anyone knows I’m missing something.

As for Mana Pools emptying more often, I think it’s good just because it helps put off when you need to explain about the existence of a mana pool at all to new players, which is good. The change is pretty insignificant (though it does make Mistbind Clique slightly better).

I have nothing to add about Token Ownership. I think it removes a kind of combo that was more fun to build around than it was damaging, but there’s no particular reason those combos should have ever worked.

Combat. Now here is the major point. I think we can all agree that combat damage not using the stack makes more sense from a flavor standpoint. You have to be in a fight to fight. If this were a game about modern soldiers you could argue that they had already fired, but most creatures in this game are melee based, and the grenade analogy that is used to explain the stack in the first place doesn’t really apply to combat between bears.

Continuing reasoning based on flavor to the new damage assignment system, I actually think it makes sense. I’ve seen a lot of complaints about it, and claims that it doesn’t, but think about it. Your beast is getting blocked by a bunch of random monsters. It seems much easier to tell it to fight the dragon first, then the elf, then the troll than to say, “okay, hit the dragon with medium strength, the elf lightly, and the troll hard.” Think about it like the idea of being “engaged” in some other systems. Once your monster starts fighting one of their multiple blockers, it has to finish it off before it can move on to another.

Really, we just need flavor to be close enough that it doesn’t horribly break suspension of disbelief (at best). I’m just saying the new rules make enough sense to pass the flavor test. That doesn’t make them better than other rules. I’ve seen some claim that they could have removed stacking damage without changing damage assignment. That’s true, but it would have been terrible for pump spells and it wouldn’t have created a new and interesting strategic point in determining order of blockers. I’m pretty sure the change to damage assignment was good.

As for getting rid of stacking damage, here I basically just have to agree with Patrick that “knowing to specify that you’re doing whatever after damage has been assigned” isn’t much of a play skill. Everyone does it. It isn’t even how you beat bad players these days. Seriously. This doesn’t take anything away from the game, it just randomly changes things. This is of course what brings up Paulo’s “don’t change for change’s sake,” but they clearly aren’t. They’re changing because the current system is counterintuitive, unflavorful, and bad for new players.

As a side note, “bad for new players” does not mean “good for better players.” That’s not what this is about. Making a game easier to learn does not necessarily dumb it down.

Next up is Deathtouch. First, are you people serious about the “Deathtouch exception” somehow proving that the new system isn’t easier or more sensible? It’s an ability that allows a creature to violate a rule, that’s not really an exception, that’s how (some, not all) abilities work. Yes, Deathtouch had to have a special clause to make it work… So what? It has it, and it works.

The lifelink change is pretty good. Getting rid of the Genju of the Fields “trick” is good. Letting Lifelink save you from dying is pretty good (and a return to original functionality, by the way).

I’ve always been one to support almost everything Wizards has ever done. I can honestly say that I was one of the few who actually liked the 6th Edition rules changes immediately (and yes, I am certainly agreeing that most people did not like them at the time). So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see me support this, but I think almost everything they’ve done has been good, and like Patrick, I’m pretty sure this change will be popular in the future.

Changing gears, next I want to talk a bit about Cascade. I think this mechanic is going to continue to have a serious impact on Standard, possibly increasingly serious after rotation, and it’s a problematic mechanic. In Honolulu I heard a lot of complaints about how swingy it is, and claims that it is among their worst mechanics. I want to spend a bit of time analyzing it from a design point of view.

Cascade is a very skill intensive mechanic. This claim should not be obvious, and you should probably disagree with it. It creates interesting decisions and tensions in deckbuilding, and is generally a very interesting mechanic for deckbuilders. This claim should be fairly obvious, and you should agree with it. I believe that it is also a skill intensive mechanic to play with. The difficult part is primarily in deciding when to play your cascade spells. Specifically, your cascade spell can hit a spell you would cast at the time you’re making the decision, or it can cast a spell you wouldn’t cast… Do you cast the spell? Well, it depends on a lot of things. Properly weighing those things and deciding whether it’s worth playing your spell is the interesting part.

The problem is that, in an individual instance, cascade is an extremely swinging mechanic. If you Enlisted Wurm into Bituminous Blast, Bloodbraid Elf, and Blightning, that card is dramatically better than just Enlisted Wurm into Terror. If both players are playing all of those spells, the one who cascades into better cards is a huge favorite. In the above example, if you decide to play your cascade spell and you hit the spell you wanted to play, it doesn’t matter if you should have played it or not. You did, and you got there. The mechanic really does feel way too much like coin flips. A single game, match, or maybe even tournament, does not have enough iterations to balance out the swings of cascade.

I think designers would do best to think of cascade as a failure (even though it is a fun, interesting, and skill intensive) mechanic, and learn that Magic can’t support mechanics that are that swingy on a single-instance basis. It just isn’t “long term” enough for “long term” mechanics like that.

Last, I want to touch briefly on the state of Standard. I think Grand Prix: Sao Paulo makes the format look like we’ve come full circle, back to White-based creature strategies as the top decks. The format looks to me that it should now cycle back to decks that beat those decks (Assault, Five-Color Control, Turbo Fog), then back to Faeries, which beats those decks, then back to the creature decks that have too many threats for Faeries. This is essentially an Aggro (White-based creature decks) gets beaten by control or combo (Assault, Fog, Grinding, decks that are designed specifically to beat BW Tokens) gets beaten by aggro control (Faeries) gets beaten by Aggro (still White-based creature decks, or Jund/Elves) format. It’s extremely open, there are a lot of decks, but it’s also all very traditional. The reason I still like Faeries is that I feel that Faeries has the greatest chance of overturning its “bad” matchups. Another approach is to play a deck in one of those categories that beats the other deck in its category (play whatever aggro deck is best against the other aggro decks – I certainly don’t know which deck that is). The last approach, which will probably have the best results at this point, is to calculate where the metagame is in the cycle and play the deck that beats whatever everyone else is playing.

Until next week…