Feature Article – M10 and the Future

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Friday, June 26th – It’s been two weeks since the revelations of the M10 Rules Changes, and Magic folk are still talking about their impact. Today, Brian Kibler sets the record straight regarding the impact of the ill-received combat changes. He also approaches the changes from a game design perspective, and has a look at Duels of the Planeswalkers!

Magic is in a very strange place right now for a writer. There’s always a lull right before the release of a new set. What is there to say? “Here’s a new decklist that you can play for another three weeks! Hope you have a PTQ soon!” Things start to get rolling again once the previews and spoilers come out and everyone has their two cents to contribute. It’s like the calm before the storm.

This time is different, though. It’s even stranger. Not only do we have a new set releasing, with a bunch of new cards for us to analyze and argue about, but it’s a new base set, which means the potential for huge upheavals in the fundamentals of the Standard format. Lightning Bolt is in, for god’s sake! Lightning Bolt! We don’t have enough information to truly speculate on what the format will look like, and while we can speculate on the impact of cards like Lightning Bolt and Glacial Fortress (and the presumptive loss of Adarkar Wastes and company as a result), it’s not terribly useful to delve into heavily analytical territory without more information available.

There are a few things to talk about, though, and one of those has certainly gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks: the M10 rules changes. I first read about the M10 rules changes on my iPhone in the airport in Portland, Oregon, on my way from Honolulu to Boston. The initial reactions were predictable – “Wizards is killing Magic!” “They’re dumbing down the game!” Magic has a long history of such reactions to change. I found it incredibly amusing when someone linked a usenet post from back when the 6th Edition rules were released that could have been juxtaposed with some of the arguments from today and no one would ever know the difference.

As a player, my knee-jerk reaction to the changes (or rather to the change, since only rule #5 was really an impactful one) was negative. I didn’t like the idea that the game as I had known it for so long would be changing, especially when I felt like I was getting back to playing it reasonably well again!

There was one reaction that I kept seeing on Twitter, Facebook, forums, and such that I didn’t understand, though — the claim that the change would remove ways for good players to outplay lesser players. This is a claim that I think is simply false, unless your idea of a good player is simply a player who has a cursory understanding of the way the rules work. The change may remove the chance for the merely competent player to blow out the casual FNM player who would always play his tricks before damage went on the stack, but if you really feel saying “Damage on the stack?” was your primary edge against your opposition, then you really need to find some better competition.

Rule #5 doesn’t reduce the complexity of combat — it merely moves where that complexity lies. Steve Sadin wrote an excellent article on Magicthegathering.com this week discussing the potential for very interesting and very complex game theory decisions based on the ordering of blockers, and I suggest that anyone who contests that this change is “dumbing down” Magic go read it. Most of the other treatments I’ve seen arguing for the complexity of blocking order haven’t done the topic justice, but Steve lays out a variety of very interesting and very realistic scenarios, all of which highlight just how much thought blocking order will take after the new rules go into effect. If anything, I think this change makes many combat scenarios a great deal more complicated, in particular those involving many of the creatures for whom the reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

Along with the previous “outplaying people” lament, one of the most common complaints I’ve read about rule #5 is the impact it has on the power level of cards with sacrifice effects like Mogg Fanatic, Siege-Gang Commander, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Ravenous Baloth. It certainly makes these cards less powerful, but it also makes them much more interesting to play with and against. Under 10th Edition rules, you would pretty much never attack a Savannah Lions into a Sakura Tribe-Elder because your opponent could simply block, stack damage, and sacrifice it to get a land. Under the new rules, however, the player with Sakura-Tribe Elder must actually make a legitimate choice about which is more important — searching for the land or killing your Savannah Lions. This requires a great deal more skill to determine than simply getting the best of both worlds. Is Sakura Tribe-Elder a bad card under the new rules? Of course not. Rampant Growth is a fine card, and it doesn’t have the option of ever blocking. Is it a worse card? Of course. But because of the decision involved, it’s also a more interesting card, and a more complex card, and a card that is more likely to be played correctly by good players and incorrectly by worse players. How is this rule dumbing down the game?

As a game designer, my reaction was almost overwhelmingly positive to all of the changes. I’d always felt that Lifelink as a keyword felt strange when it was cumulative when so many other keywords were not, and players constantly played the trigger/player death element of the ability incorrectly. The fact that a creature had to regenerate twice if it died to both combat damage and Deathtouch felt very clunky and unintuitive and, again, players would often play wrong. Something I’ve come to learn in my time working on games is that if there is a rule that a significant number of your players frequently get wrong, it is more likely that the problem is with your rule than with your players. Lifelink and Deathtouch fell into this category, so they were fixed. Mana burn, similarly, was a rule that players needed to know to play the game but almost never came up. Yes, removing mana burn changes the functionality of a number of cards out there, but it also makes the game that much more approachable and avoids that many misplayed games when mana burn goes overlooked. Kudos to the Magic team (although boo to the miserable patch of Deathtouch to fit with the new combat damage rules!)

I think the terminology changes, while somewhat awkward to experienced players who are used to the old zone names, make a lot of sense. What is a mystery to me is why they would make all of these terminology changes and yet leave the ambiguity of the term “Counter” in the game. Granted, the two terms are rarely used in such a way that they could be confused by anyone familiar with their meaning, but leaving a single word in the game with two definitions while doing so much else to clarify terminology seems strange. If “In play” is going to become “The Battlefield” to prevent confusion, shouldn’t “+1/+1 Counter” become “+1/+1 Marker” to prevent confusion with Counterspell? It seems like a lost opportunity.

With my game designer hat on, I do have one minor complaint about the changes, and it is about the controversial Rule #5. As I mentioned previously, I don’t feel like the move from damage-on-the-stack to “Line ’em up, Knock ’em down — NO CUTTING!” actually significantly reduces the complexity of combat. It replaces one rule that players have to know – that there is a point at which players assign damage to creatures — with another rule – that the attacking player orders the defending creatures and must assign lethal damage to them in that order. Since players already have to know how the stack works to play other parts of the game, having combat damage use that same set of rules makes sense. I don’t really buy the flavor argument that it doesn’t make sense that a guy throws a punch and it connects if he’s not there anymore. We went over the exact same argument in reverse with Prodigal Sorcerer and Terror — removing the source of the effect doesn’t stop the effect. Why is it different in combat?

The big way it is different is that combat damage is the only thing to use the stack that isn’t based on an actual game event, like a spell or activated ability being played, so it’s not quite as clear when it happens or how it works. But I feel like this change is just replacing one rule based on a somewhat ambiguous event with another, and one that is new and unlike the rest of the game. How many people, when they first read the new rules, thought that the defender chose the order of the blocking creatures for damage assignment? I read quite a few initial reviews of the M10 changes that made exactly that mistake in their analysis, since it seems awkward that both the defending player and the attacking player are making decisions about the blocking creatures at essentially the same time. And from a flavor perspective, doesn’t it make more sense that the defender is the one who decides what order his creatures line up in to fight the attacker? I suspect this will be the source of some confusion among casual players sorting through these new rules in the not-so-distant future.

My biggest complaint about M10, though, is entirely unrelated to the rules changes. How is it that the set comes out and the rules go into effect so suddenly in the middle of the National Championship season? Since Wizards’ policy is now that sets are legal upon release, this gives many players very little time to adapt to the new rules in a competitive environment or to acquire the new cards. Magic Online won’t use the M10 rules until after U.S. Nationals has already begun, which is frustrating for players who use that as a primary testing tool, but other countries have it even worse. Japan and Australia, among other countries, have their Nationals the weekend immediately after M10 is released! While many top pros are friends with dealers and can readily get cards at events, Nationals tends to be a tournament that brings out players who are less experienced and less well connected with the Pro Tour “scene.” It would be very unfortunate for those players to be prevented from playing the decks they want to run in the tournament simply because they can’t get the necessary cards from a set released a week before.

One last thing before I sign off. I had the opportunity to play in the Game with Fame event for Duels of the Planeswalkers sponsored by Microsoft and Wizards of the Coast last weekend, and it was a lot of fun. While the game certainly isn’t something that highly competitive players will find challenging, since it has only the roughest deck customization tools, it’s a fun little game that’s definitely worth the $10 price (especially since you get a Foil Garruk with it!). It’s also a great way to share your Magic hobby with friends or family members who might not have the patience to learn the paper game, since so many of the logistical elements like deckbuilding and tapping mana to play spells are handled automatically. All in all, I think it’s a great foray by Wizards of the Coast into the console realm, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it in the future.

Until next time…