The next few months of Internet articles about Magic promise to be full of intros full of sentences like,”It’s time to look at Planeshift’s impact on the environment”,”I’d like to add my voice to the large number of Planeshift analyses already out there”,”Even though I know many people are sick of Planeshift analyses, I’m convinced I add enough value to make yet another article worth your time”, and”Did we ever really, truly find out just who DID let the dogs out?” There is one thing that these articles, of course, cannot do.
And that is do it all in haiku, with the occasional limerick interlude.
Sorry, I’ll need a full spoiler before I do that (and I WILL do it). But in the meantime, I want to give you all a tool for looking at the new set, no matter what it may contain. I have very little doubt that Planeshift will have plenty of goodies for group players: Since Masques, Wizards has shown an obvious interest and ability for integrating strong multiplayer cards into each expansion. And the few cards we’ve seen in previews and spoilers (Sunken Hope, Noxious Vapors, Mirrorwood Treefolk, Questing Phelddagrif, etc.) confirm a bare minimum of fun fodder.
But as you look at each card, I would like to equip you with a set of Ten Fabulous Questions to ask so that you can get a sense of how you might get the full effect from each. I’m basing these questions loosely on the three dimensions — length, breadth, and depth of impact — that I’ve explored in past Casual Fridays. (There appears to be a reconstruction of article archives in the midst of this spanking new web site look; be patient, and I imagine within a week or so you’ll be able to look far enough back to find what I’m talking about.) (Unfortunately, it will take longer than that to convert all of our archives over to the spiffy new database format, but trust us when we say it’s a priority — The Ferrett) You don’t need to know them intimately, in any case; what I go over below will cover most of it.
Make sure you print out this article and keep it next to you as you bust open your box! Look, I’ll even make a picture of myself and then you can pretend that I am watching you open your box and enjoying your new cards as much as you are:
I know, I know, I need a haircut.
QUESTION ONE:”HOW MANY PLAYERS/OPPONENTS DOES THIS CARD TOUCH?”
We’ll start with a basic one. Breadth of impact is perhaps the clearest defining characteristic of a multiplayer card. A card that only targets one player, permanent, or spell is not having as wide an impact as a card that affects all opponents, or two target nonblack creatures, or artifacts with a certain casting cost.
One of the mistakes often made in answering this question comes from assuming that if it affects everyone, it MUST work better in multiplayer. This is not necessarily true. To wit: The Hunted Wumpus.
There is no doubt that the Hunted Wumpus has a larger effect (and may end up being more fun) in multiplayer than in duel, since there are more players to put out creatures. I tested a Pandemonium-Wumpus deck when Masques came out that essentially gave everyone the opportunity to identify and attack whomever they felt the threat was. (Unfortunately, they often decided it was me. Hey, I was playing Pandemonium! What did I expect?)
But anyone expecting to use the Wumpus as a massive early threat in group is in for a big surprise. Pete brought one of his friends to play with us a week or so ago; the guy ran Hunted Wumpus in a fairly typical green-red deck. The hunting creatures came down something like this: Air Elemental, Crimson Hellkite, Avatar of Woe, Metathran Transport. (The Transport was mine. Isn’t that pathetic? I have about ten massive, ugly creatures in the deck and all I have when this guy plays a freaking free creature ticket is a 1/3 flyer that can, maybe, fool potential blockers. Spiffy.)
So like I said, not every card that involves everyone is good for you. Just fun.
QUESTION TWO:”HOW FLEXIBLE IS THE CARD?”
On one end of the scale, there are cards like Evincar’s Justice and Final Fortune, which give you no leeway in who you can target. (Evincar’s Justice must hit everything and everyone; Final Fortune must be”you.”) On the other end of the spectrum are cards like Sway of Illusion and Fireball, which let you choose any number of targets for the card’s effect. Somewhere in the middle are cards like Congregate, Terror, and Animate Land. I would submit to you that the cards in between Terror and Sway of Illusion are where many hidden gems are in multiplayer. Anyone can see that Wrath of God is good in group, because you”hit more stuff.” But it takes a little more time and patience to see the full value in a multiplayer Barrin’s Spite or Voice of Many. Not a ton, I’ll admit; but a little.
Asking the flexibility question gives you the opportunity to dream of combinations you would not normally come up with the first time you look at a card.”Distorting Wake bounces X non-land permanents…that’s pretty flexible! But it doesn’t reach lands. What does? Sunder.” And you’re off to the races.
QUESTION THREE:”WHAT ARE ALL, AND I MEAN *ALL*, OF THE THINGS THAT THIS CARD DOES?”
Now that you’ve spent two seconds gaping at a card that kills any number of creatures you choose whenever you feel like it, let’s look at some of the fine print. There are really cool or damning (or both)”side effects” that many of the more interesting cards have. Stuff like:
“You can’t play creature spells.”
“Any player may activate this ability.”
“If this card leaves play, B happens.”
“Pay 2: Discard a card from your hand.”
This stuff is the”harmony” of a good multiplayer card; it lies right below the melody that everybody sees and begs you to sing it right.
Not every card with a drawback is a candidate for Donate.
Likewise, not every card with a nifty side effect has to be used in the most obvious way. For example, most people would look at Varchild’s War Riders (3/4, Trample, Rampage 1, Cumulative Upkeep – Put a 1/1 red Survivor creature token into play under an opponent’s control) and see the words”trample” and”rampage”. Ergo, Lure. Others would look at the card and see the word”1/1.” (Let’s pretend 1/1 is a word, okay? As my mother often instructs me in her delightful Massachusetts accent,”Don’t get smaht with me.”) Ergo, Tremor.
But try this: I look at the card and I see the word”cumulative.” Ergo, I think Stronghold Discipline. Theo looked at the card and saw”cumulative,” too; but he also saw the word”red”. Ergo (are you sick of”ergo” yet…I had a really good friend back in grade school who would hiss in disapproval whenever he saw words like”ergo” and”hence” in his basic science textbook… I can’t say I blame him), Searing Rays. I’ll repeat that because I want to make sure you didn’t miss it in the wake of yet another horrific digression: Ergo, Searing Rays. Not Searing Wind. RAYS.
As Theo called out to an opponent the first time he played the deck:”Untap, Give you 21 1/1 red tokens, Draw, Main Phase, Tap three mana, Burn you with Searing Rays, naming red. Hey, red’s not so bad!!!”
QUESTION FOUR:”HOW DOES THIS CARD CHANGE THE GAME?”
Really fun multiplayer cards put the game into a new”phase”. You want people to think of the games you play in parts:”BPW (Before Plague Wind)” and”APW (After Plague Wind)”. Everyone can easily recall games where the game looked like it was over until”that jerk played an Ensnaring Bridge,” or where the game looked like it would take forever until”that jerk (sometimes the same one, in the same deck!) played an eighteen-point Hurricane.” Not every card in your deck has to be a game-changer, but part of the fun in exploring a new set is in identifying those cards with that capability.
The game change does not have to be so obvious. Plague Spitter is still very visible, but not as much as Thrashing Wumpus. Down another notch are cards like Pendrell Mists, Worry Beads, and Mogg Maniac. Down in the quite subtle regions, we have such potential gamebreakers as Phyrexian Splicer and Propaganda.
Another way to ask this question:”What do people have to STOP doing once this spell is played? What can they START doing that’s different? And what can they KEEP doing, differently or otherwise?” If you can answer those questions and are impressed, you may be holding a gamebreaker in your hand.
QUESTION FIVE:”WHOM DOES THIS CARD HURT MORE?”
Some cards hit a few players harder than they do other opponents. Obvious examples are Tranquil Grove and Shatterstorm, since they only penalize those playing those kinds of permanents. (Let’s set aside combos with Soul Sculptor and Forge[/author]“]Thran [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] for now.) More intricate examples are where the fun is: The complex interactions that are sure to follow Spreading Plague’s arrival on the board, or the casting of a Cataclysm.
This is where you really have to think about your group, and how they play. I still see my group playing artifact after artifact, so when a card like Noxious Vapors (see Sideboard preview) comes along, I notice that it will hurt artifact fiends more than, say, a guy looking for a Coalition Victory win condition.
Discard hurts control more. Pyroclasm hurts weenies more. Extinction hurts Slivers more. Know the popular strategies in your group and take the time to wonder how much pain your new card could cause.
I’ll interject one opinion here, on color hosers. Our group is toying with them again, and I think I can set out my personal stance in four easy principles: the more flexible cards in your multiplayer deck are more effective and offend less people than the color hosers that belong in the sideboard of your tournament deck. There are only two exceptions: hosing limited to a single permanent (e.g. Paladin en-Vec), and pushing the hoser beyond its normal limitations (e.g., Perish and Sway of Illusion; or Lawbringer and Distorting Lens).
Non-basic lands, artifacts, enchantments, control elements, even creatures are all reasonably considered options in a multiplayer deck. As you look at your new Planeshift cards and think about the hosing possibilities, focus on broad, optional concerns like these. Should you seek to punish those who try to go five-color? Should you push for the elimination of mono-dork decks in your group? Do mages with swarms of Saprolings need to learn a lesson? Are artifacts so underutilized right now that you need to re-establish their primacy over all colors? Decks with cards built around these questions will be infinitely more interesting to your opponents than decks that initiate color wars.
QUESTION SIX:”WHAT ARE THE MAJOR THREATS AND COUNTERMEASURES TO THIS CARD?”
No fair answering”Counterspell.”
One of the most rewarding things I do in authoring Casual Fridays is produce the Multiplayer Card Hall of Fame. This is an excellent time of reflection for me, because I have to force myself to really think about every card and how it might get used and/or set aside. When I decided to put in countermeasures for each card, interest in the Hall really solidified. I think I touched a nerve out there, since the Hall could now really focus on what made these cards good… And what made them impotent.
Thinking up countermeasures for a card does at least two good things for you. First, it trains you to think of answers to problems you might face. If artifact mana will make Limited Resources less effective, you may decide you want four Disenchants in your deck after all. (Or, if you wanna get even smarter, you put in four Seal of Cleansings, which can be Tutored for as an instant if you really need it quickly.) If your Tsabo’s Assassin is an easy candidate for burn, you may want to consider Bubble Matrix.
Second, the countermeasures that you can think of for your top cards are sometimes the cards you might want to put into that deck. For example: you open up Wishmonger, look at it, and say,”This wouldn’t do me ANY good if I were facing artifact creatures! Heeey…” CoP: Red decks with Acidic Soil and CoP: Black decks with Pestilence were born from this kind of thinking.
Quick exercise for you: Go to one of those Planeshift spoiler lists, or to the Sideboard previews, and pick two or three cards to develop countermeasures for. (I’ll have previewed Sunken Hope and Noxious Vapors by the time you read this; start with those.) Are comes-into-play creatures good against all that bouncing we’re starting to see? Are cheap instants any good against discard? Most importantly, does anyone really think that multiplayer countermeasures will be necessary against a Gaea’s Heralds (according to spoiler, 1/1 Elves for 1G, Creature spells can’t be countered by spells or abilities)?
QUESTION SEVEN:”WHAT CARDS ARE SIMILAR TO THIS?”
I actually ask this question a lot earlier; but this is a less interesting question and therefore gets stuck out here in the middle of the list. Boring doesn’t mean unimportant, though. This is a technique used by many Pros to evaluate cards:”Here is a Troublesome Spirit. For 2UU I get a 3/4 creature that taps my lands every turn. What are the standards for blue flyers? The high standard is Morphling, 3UU 3/3 does everything. Troublesome Spirit, for only one less mana, loses all of Morphling’s abilities (except flying) and is therefore an inferior choice in most cases to the Morphling.”
You don’t always need to compare the card to a killer rare. You can use a more average standard and sometimes discover a little bit more about when the card would be good. Our generic Pro might think something like this:”The average standard is Air Elemental, 3UU 4/4 vanilla flyer. Troublesome Spirit is a more aggressive card than Air Elemental and would work in more aggressive blue decks that don’t want to counterspell very easily. Otherwise, I’m probably better of with the Elemental.”
Global Ruin gets compared to Armageddon and Cataclysm. Breath of Darigaaz/Canopy Surge gets compared to Earthquake/Hurricane. Smoldering Tar gets compared to Subversion and/or Seal of Fire. It’s not because these cards are the same, or even incredibly close. It’s because of their reasonable proximity, AND because the person who compares them has a feeling the comparison will be enlightening.
“Blinding Angel Â— the new Serra Angel!” isn’t enough. You have to really run through the differences (lower power, taps to attack, freezes next turn’s offense) and see them not as advantages or disadvantages, but just…Differences. Once you do that, you begin to see that Blinding Angel gains more from having an Angel’s Trumpet on the board than Serra Angel does. (The Trumpet does two things in concert with the Blinding Angel: it adds a non-tapping value to the Angel that would be redundant in the Serra Angel, and it assures damage to opponents who are blinded by this very pesky attacker. The Trumpet and the lower power of the Angel have no symmetry; but that’s what Meekstone is for. Boo-yah!)
And finally, don’t forget there are always completely new cards that are too difficult to compare to past relatives. (Is Spreading Plague close enough to Death Pits of Rath? Probably not.)
QUESTION EIGHT:”WILL EVERYONE ELSE TRY TO PLAY THIS CARD?”
Don’t be a sheep.
Unless the spell is really, really good. In which case…baaaaaaaaaaa…
QUESTION NINE:”HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH THE FIRST TIME I PLAY THIS?”
Why do I run Break this Card contests…to be informative and educational? You should all hope not. I run Break this Card contests because I laugh when I get in those quirky entries that use one color to break Coalition Victory, or Flickering Wards to break Sorrow’s Path (Fifth Edition rules only, I think, now). Several of you have figured out that the way to my heart (and at least a mention as a runner-up in the relevant Casual Fridays) is to make something not necessarily consistent, but pretty far out.
The irony is that I don’t build my own decks that way — I value consistency over quirkiness. But there you go; life doesn’t always make sense. A deck you built just for laughs is just as valid a multiplayer deck as the rigorous, smashmouth multiplayer deck that I often advocate. Both can inspire some memorable moments. Both can make opponents groan, or laugh, or dump root beer on your head.
I guess my point is, just because I don’t build my decks for quirky combos doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Don’t listen to me all the time, dammit. It’s too much pressure. I would rather you experimented with other multiplayer approaches from time to time. (I would also rather you then fail miserably, and come crawling back to the Alongi School of Multiplayer swearing never to build that cheesy crap ever again.)
QUESTION TEN:”HOW GOOD IS THE DRESSING?”
It’s not all about the rules text and casting cost. Please remember that there are other formats besides straight chaos out there. I’ve talked in the past about artist-only formats, alphabet formats, and so on. Each new Planeshift card brings more to you than a good mana curve fit and/or threat removal. It also brings the name of an artist. Notice that. Find the threads of work that artist does in this expansion — it will likely cut across common and rare runs, colors, permanent types, etc. But it’s a real body of work that deserves time and reflection.
Many new cards will also bring you flavor text. Aside from the obvious Omeed references, is there anything we can learn from what we see there? If there are quotes from classic literature (which are rumored to be coming back some day soon), what do you know about that literature that helps you understand the intent of the card more? If it’s Magic storyline material, do you appreciate the story more? What cards have the best symmetry between artwork and flavor text? Are the jokes getting any better?
Here’s a casual format idea: Every card in your deck must have a lame, might-have-been funny joke on it. When you play the spell, you must come up with funnier flavor text or your spell is countered.
Finally, every new card will have a title. At least five of them will be really, really cool. (It will be hard to top Skizzik or, as I prefer to announce its arrival,”SKZK!!!”
Let’s recap the ten questions, so you can miniaturize and laminate them:
- How many players/opponents (does the card touch)?
- How flexible (is the card)?
- What are all of the elements of the card?
- How does the card change the game?
- Whom does the card hurt more?
- What are the major threats and countermeasures for this card?
- What cards are similar to this one?
- Will everyone else try to play this card?
- How can I make people laugh with this card?
- How good is the”dressing”?
The first several (especially 2, 3, and 7) are actually not horrifically far from the kinds of questions you might ask about the card to judge its value in formal limited and constructed formats. But I’ll leave those pretty words to the finely manicured fingers of Gary, Zvi, & Co.
NEXT WEEK: I will be in Los Angeles reporting on the Pro Tour. Whatever I write for Casual Fridays will be short, but cute as a bunny you betcha. I’ll make up for it on the flip side: Aside from the Sideboard coverage, I will provide TWO reports on the multiplayer event that will be held down there, as well as reflections on the Pro Tour and (as I did for Chicago) what it might mean for the casual, multiplayer scene. I’ll also have to do some hard judging for the Break this Card entries — thank you to all who entered; you will get confirmations soon! And oh yeah, that haiku/limerick preview of Planeshift…man, I shouldn’t have committed to that…