Eternal Europe – Talking Design 2012

In this unique article, Legacy aficionado Carsten Kotter reviews 2012 by telling you how he feels about how Magic design as a whole developed throughout the year.

I’m usually not big on writing year in review articles, but somehow this year feels different. There are a lot of subjects that are worth discussing, from the extremely sweet explosion of coverage to the still unresolved question of how to best deal with triggers to the impact of a multicolor block on a format in which dual-fetch mana bases allow you to completely disregard colored mana costs.

What I’ve been contemplating the most, though, is the way Magic design as a whole has developed. Since a lot of my ideas about this particular subject have taken shape while discussing it with other players, I’ve decided to try something different in this article. I hope you enjoy this little experiment, and let me know what you think about it in the comments.

So much for the setup; go ahead and enjoy!

The Show

The stage beams with flashing lights. The title theme plays. Applause engulfs the studio. The announcer’s voice echoes from offstage.

"Welcome to Confronting Player Profiles, the Magic talk show that pits writers and opinion holders against the Magical personifications of players everywhere. Please join me in welcoming our hosts, Timmy, Johnny, and Spike!"

The audience breaks into wild applause.

"Today, our three avatars will confront one of StarCityGames.com most beloved Eternal writers, Legacy aficionado, and one of the few writers out there arrogant enough to make up a talk show just to invite themselves there. Please welcome with me…Caaaarsten Kooootter!"

Applause and some stage-whispered comments along the lines of "Who the heck is that guy?" can be heard in the background as a person that looks exactly how you imagine me steps into the light. He waves to the audience, and his voice echoes through the studio.

"Hi everybody, it’s great to be here!"

He seats himself at the trapezoid table facing Timmy, Johnny, and Spike along the larger end of the table. The player avatars are their usual shapeshifting selves, features flowing from one form to another constantly, their bodies growing and shrinking, thinning and fattening as one would expect from beings that represent a diverse set of different human beings at the same time.

Spike (S): So you’re here to talk about Magic design in the last year or so, right? Aren’t you just a Legacy writer?

Carsten Kötter (CK): Well, while I rarely play anything but Legacy, I’m obsessed with this game and have been for nearly two decades now. I devour Magic coverage and videos. Magic is an incredibly important part of my life. As such, the future of Magic as a whole is something I care about very deeply, and design is the lifeblood of the game. It shapes game play, keeps Magic fresh and exciting, and is also what draws new players to the game.

Timmy (T): Alright then, let’s talk about design. What exactly do you want to talk about?

CK: Overall, I’m very happy with what R&D has been doing. A ton of fun and interesting cards have come out of Renton lately. There are a few cards, though, that I feel R&D should learn from.

S: Anything in particular you’d like to start with?

CK: I’ll start of with the two cards I find most disappointing: Omniscience and the recently spoiled Enter the Infinite.

T: What’s bad about those? They’re sweet! I mean, just imagine casting Enter the Infinite!

CK: Sounds sweet—drawing your deck is one of the coolest things you can do in the game. That’s the big problem I have with those two cards actually.

S: That’s kind of contradictory, isn’t it?

CK: Only on the surface. Magic is often about pulling off things that seem impossible. Just ask Johnny over there. All he wants to do is find ways to do awesome things by putting the right cards together. 

Johnny (J): You got me!

CK: And that’s exactly why I consider Omniscience and Enter the Infinite to be probably the worst designs in the history of Magic. Ask yourself this question: what are the coolest things you can do in Magic?

S: Win!

T: Anything concerning Akroma, Angel of Wrath!

J: Oh gosh… Intruder Alarm, Birds of Paradise, Kiki-Jiki Mirror Breaker, and Archivist?

CK: Think about Johnny’s answer—not the particular cards but the underlying flavor. He wants an engine that will allow him to do absolutely anything. There’s a quest there—doing something awesome—which, in Magic, generally boils down to having "infinite" mana or "infinite" cards. And that quest is threatened by the mere existence of Omniscience and Enter the Infinite.

T: Wait a minute! I’d love to crack those in a booster. They’re awesome!

CK: Sure they are; they’re sweet and splashy. They’re also combos in a can. Want to draw your deck? Alright, make twelve mana and play Enter the Infinite. Want to have infinite mana? Alright, get Omniscience into play.

Sounds a lot less fun than "combine pieces A and B, add buried treasure C, and you’re at least half-way there," doesn’t it? When everything cool in Magic can be done simply by making mana and casting a spell, it suddenly starts to feel cheap. There’s a cost here, and it’s one that cuts into the heart of Magic. 

J: So true!

T: I guess I’d be fine casting cool stuff like Form of the Dragon or Worldspine Worm if it means more fun for my buddy.

S: I don’t really mind. I mean, why should I care? It’s not like casting a ten-plus mana card is ever going to win games consistently, is it?

CK: Magic is about more than winning, at least for a lot of us. It’s about the visceral experience, the sense of achievement we get if a game ends because a plan comes together. When the pieces click, suddenly we’ve achieved godhood in the little world that is a game of Magic.

This feeling is what "canned infinity" cards undermine. They may feel awesome for a while, but after a little bit of exposure they become boring—they’re always the same.

With things like infinite mana or drawing your deck, the end result isn’t really what matters; once you get there, the game is usually over, after all. It’s the way that counts, and if the way is "cast card X," it just isn’t the same any more.

J: That’s exactly how I feel about those…

S: I guess I can see that. There’d also be less dumb Show and Tell targets to lose to that way, which is always a plus.

CK: That reminds me: another card I’m very unhappy with is Griselbrand (as well as his older friend, Emrakul, the Aeons Torn) for very similar reasons. Where the journey for people like Johnny is to set up some weird engine to do something cool, for people like you, Spike, what makes Magic fun is the struggle for dominance, the fight to establish a position that will lead to a win. 

S: Yep, that’s me.

CK: Single cards that are powerful enough to just end the game from basically any position ruins this kind of experience. However well you fought, independent of how many traps you’ve set up and how far ahead you’ve gotten, your opponent can play one stupidly powerful card that ends the game in their favor.

The problem here isn’t even that you lost. What irks is that nothing mattered—there was no meaningful struggle, no fighting for position, no intricate dance of the duelists. There wasn’t even any particularly brilliant deckbuilding involved. They made mana, resolved one spell, and the game ended.

S: Couldn’t agree more.

J: Very true, it isn’t even fun to find ways to cheat those things into play anymore.

T: I still love my Emrakuls and Griselbrands. It’s pretty sad that I never actually get to play a game with them, though. People just pick up their cards when I get them down…

CK: Pretty disgusting, right? There are a few other cards I feel shouldn’t have seen print for similar reasons. Delver of Secrets and Geist of Saint Traft represent the worst end of creature power creep.

T: Oh yeah, I hate those! They always kill me before I can cast anything.

S: Hey, I think they’re sweet. Low cost, incredible threat value, very low commitment…

CK: As loathe as I am to join that particular line of argument, as far as these two creatures are concerned I think Timmy is spot on. Both of them reduce game length to a point where it often ends up being a one-sided blowout. The problem with them is two-fold: they’re extremely cheap for the amount of damage they can deal and are hard to interact with.

S: Well, they’re just creatures…

CK: That doesn’t really count for Geist, does it? It usually wins after three swings, and creature combat is basically the only way to interact with it that isn’t a terrible trade or very narrow.

S: Admittedly, but you realize everything kills Delver, right?

CK: Delver, in a way, is the flip side of Geist of Saint Traft. Seeing as flying creatures with reasonable bodies usually start at three mana, the only way to actually stop it is cheap removal. If it costs more than one mana, though, you’re losing tempo and allowing the blue player to untap and protect Delver.

S: I guess that’s a rather bad situation. I could just play enough removal, though. It’s called metagaming.

CK: Have you actually tried filling your deck with removal against a Delver deck that also has access to Geist or anything else that doesn’t die to cheap removal? Not to mention what happens if you don’t play against a creature deck…

S: Ok, that would suck, I agree.

CK: It boils down to this: both of these cards give overwhelming aggressive potential to a color that is supposed to be mainly defensive and tricky in nature and has the tools to win games that way. Also, giving blue super-efficient, non-interactive threats that come down early in the game is bad for both balance and the color pie—what is left for the other colors at that point?

T: Seconded. I, for one, was really sad when green and red—the aggro colors—didn’t have the best aggressive one-drop anymore.

CK: Design-wise, it gets worse. Delver and Geist lead to a lot of games that feel like only one of the two players has actually played Magic. Creature threats, like spells, shouldn’t provide so much pressure that opponents can’t effectively deal with them. Magic is best when it’s a dance of answers and threats, both players wrestling for position and edging out advantages that will allow them to strike a killing blow. Low-cost, overwhelming threats like Delver and Geist encourage the exact opposite in the same way a card like Griselbrand does.

T: Alright, so you hate creatures getting better. Isn’t that just bias?

CK: I won’t deny that dropping guys into play and beating down isn’t exactly how I like to play Magic. That doesn’t mean I want creatures to be bad, though. I think cards like Knight of the Reliquary and, looking at the last year, Thragtusk and Huntmaster of the Fells are where we want to be. In my opinion, they hit the sweet spot exactly that we want creature power creep to aim at.

J: Wait a second. Those regularly take over the game, too!

CK: They also cost four or five mana. They should be powerful! Look at some of the other cards at that spot on the curve: Elspeth, Knight Errant; Gideon Jura; Jace, Architect of Thought; Fact or Fiction; Wrath of God. Creatures being on par with these powerful noncreature bombs is totally fine.

S: Contradict yourself much? How is Geist really different at three mana?

CK: They don’t threaten to just win with minimal interactive possibilities. When these cards hit the table, you feel their impact. They rock your opponent’s world. They don’t just win the game in short order, though. They take time to realize their power, giving the opponent an opportunity to deal with them on their terms. That’s exactly the back and forth Magic should be about.

S: So what you’re saying is "efficient threats are good as long as they can be efficiently answered?" 

CK: Exactly. By the way, answers are one thing R&D got right this year. Return to Ravnica is chock full of flexible, efficient answers. Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay are two of the most beautiful cards ever to see print in that regard.

J: Actually, I really don’t like Abrupt Decay. It’s so hard to set up sweet interactions with that around…

CK: I think that is as it should be. Similar to how people shouldn’t be crushed out of a game by turn 1 Delver, turn 3 Geist, they should also have ways of stopping people from combining Counterbalance with Sensei’s Divining Top and Entomb with Reanimate.

J: Well, ok, but did we really need something as all-encompassing as Decay?

CK: If answers are narrow, these kinds of interactions remain largely non-interactive in pre-board games. By making flexible, powerful answers that are balanced by being hard to cast, these threats are kept in check without being totally invalidated.

Powerful answers take advantage of the old Magic adage "there are no wrong threats, just wrong answers" in a totally different way. As they don’t end the game but instead prolong it, there is more time for the opponent to find a way to win—which then has to be matched with another answer. And thus the dance continues.

J: I guess that’s reasonable. Where would the fun be in setting up cool plays if my opponent couldn’t try to make them harder to pull off?

T: So the direction you want Magic design to take is to make broad, efficient answers and powerful but answerable threats?

CK: That’s it.

S: Suits me fine. The more interaction there is, the more I can gain by outplaying my opponents.

CK: That’s another problem I have with Delver: it’s either terrible for the player casting it or the opponent independent of in-game choices. The variance level on that card is just too high. 

S: As you’re speaking of variance, what’s your take on miracles?

CK: That is one mechanic that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. On one hand, I love how it has made true control viable in Legacy…

S: Yeah, but they’re so annoyingly random!

CK: Actually, that isn’t true for Legacy. All the library manipulation in the format means that they behave rather predictably. The amount of times you actually miracle them unexpectedly is quite low, which means you can play towards setting them up and your opponent can work towards minimizing their impact.

You both know you will hit your miracle eventually. As a result, the mechanic works exactly as intended—simulating Nassif’s called shot Cruel Ultimatum—at those moments when you have to get lucky. Both you and your opponent are aware that your only out is to hit the miracle now.

T: I think miracles are sweet. Whenever you draw one, you slam it down and bathe in the glory!

CK: Well, that’s actually kind of the problem. The miraculous topdeck is sweet exactly because it happens so rarely. If doing that is the whole point, it loses much of its luster.

J: How’s that different from ripping the Cruel Ultimatum?

CK: Well, for one, you have to draw them at the ideal point in time. Without library manipulation, there is no waiting, no possible setting up. If they come a turn to early, they might be the worst clunk ever invented. Making cards binary to the point of being mostly useless or overwhelmingly powerful creates a lot of unhappiness for the sake of some excitement—just look at Delver. It also minimizes the impact of skill on the game, something that is going to make any dedicated Planeswalker unhappy.

S: So true!

CK: That isn’t even my main problem with the mechanic, though, at least not from a design perspective. I think there is a fundamental flaw with miracles given that the goal is to recreate the "slam it" moments of matches past.

T: You draw it, you slam it. Sounds right to me.

CK: Don’t forget context. What miracles do give you are very powerful effects at a reduced cost. Yet when do the memorable, sweet topdecks happen? That’s right, comparatively late in the game, when one player is behind to the point of needing a miracle (pun intended).

J: But miracles will totally do that!

CK: Absolutely, you’ll topdeck your miracle, slam it down, and it will be glorious. Even your opponent will agree that it was exciting and a brilliant moment of Magic. Here’s the question though: wouldn’t that have been exactly the same with a regular spell?

T: I guess…

CK: "Slam it" moments don’t usually happen when mana is tight. They happen when the cards, not the mana, are what’s holding you back. How does making stuff cheaper even matter at that point?

J: Miracles mean you can have the same thing happen early even if you’re mana screwed or when your opponent had a god draw. How is that a problem?

CK: That in itself isn’t, but consider the flipside. Assume we’re in the middle of a tight game, both players fighting the good fight and trying to squeeze out every little advantage they can. Then boom! Bonfire of the Damned. At that point, the miracle doesn’t miraculously save you; it takes a sweet game and turns it into a crushing defeat. That is a terrible way for the mechanic to play out.

S: Yeah, I remember those games.

CK: Even worse, imagine the person topdecking the miracle is ahead. It usually just ends the game. In a way, what the miracle mechanic does is make the most common use of Cruel Ultimatum—the "ok, you’re totally dead now" mode used to end games—available in the early game.

J: It does feel like cheating. It’s like I should need some kind of combo to do that.

CK: That’s really the problem. Miracles are extremely exciting sometimes, but in most games they play like this: for the person hitting the miracle, it’s powerful but hardly lifesaving, which is the biggest reason called-Cruel style topdecks feel awesome. To their opponent, though, it’s another game they lose to topdecking the nuts—and slamming it is just rubbing it in.  

T: Topdecking Entreat the Angels after I’ve already Terminused often feels that way. Instead of being exciting, it’s a lot like kicking someone while they’re down.

CK: Wizards said they thought the awesomeness of hitting the sweet topdeck would make up for the feeling of getting blown out at random. A sound idea, but it doesn’t take into account how Magic actually plays out if thousands of players play tens of thousands of games. It considers the ideal scenario instead of the most common one.

The nature of the mechanic and the variance inherent in Magic make it so that many more games are ruined by a miracle than amazing comebacks are enabled. In the long run, the excitement of topdecking miracles is minimized while the annoyance factor is maximized.

S: So true. Early on in playtesting, hitting Terminus of off my Think Twice felt sweet. After a while, it just became the same old, same old.

J: This has been really interesting, but sadly, we’re running out of time. Any final words?

CK: Don’t take all this criticism the wrong way. I think R&D has been doing a great job with Magic. The game is fun, interesting, and exciting to the point of taking up a huge chunk of my free time and drawing in more and more players.

If there’s only one lesson that R&D can to take to heart from last year’s mistakes, I’d like it to be what I just alluded to: consider repetition! Don’t design around maximum excitement but instead around repeat value.

Your typical Magician plays quite a bit of Magic. In that kind of environment, everybody has the most fun when the cards are designed to be exciting most of the time, not if they’re designed to be overwhelmingly exciting a limited amount of the time.

When designing cards, don’t look at the best-case scenario, how awesome a card could be. Instead, focus on what happens if the card is drawn in a thousand games by a thousand of players over and over again. Because that is what will happen. Magic is huge, and as a result, it feels as if what happens most of time is what happens all of the time.

That’s essentially what all the cards I haven’t liked in the last year share: they’re sometimes amazingly exciting and awesome. They also do the opposite most of the rest of the time, making fun and swingy games into one-sided blowouts.

T & J & S: Nice closing statement. Thanks for coming, Carsten. It was great talking to you!

Everybody else, this was the last episode of Confronting Player Profiles for 2012. See you next year!

CK: Thank you for having me; it’s been a pleasure. Until next time, may your new year be exciting all the time!

Carsten Kotter