Firing Back: Taking Tinsman to Task Over Saviors of Kamigawa Design

Today Zvi turns his eye for set design to Brian Tinsman’s MagictheGathering.com article and explains the choices he would have made in designing Saviors of Kamigawa. He also discusses the flaws in Kamigawa Block, delivers a Top 10 list of things he learned at the Vs. System Pro Circuit, and answers the question: Is Trinisphere interactive?

I’m working on Vintage in earnest, hoping to find something worthwhile. The problem is that I’ve realized that my early explorations are intentionally covering ground that others have already covered. I need to know what they know before I can figure out the things they missed. I know a lot more than I used to, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to write anything too useful yet. When you don’t have anything useful to say the very least you can do is to shut up. I’ll do that for now, and I hope to have enough by next week to talk about the subject of various decks involving Thirst for Knowledge and Goblin Welder. It’s possible I will choose something from this group, but at this point I would consider it unlikely.

What I do want to talk about is a little bit of an extension of my set review. Brian Tinsman posted an article this week about the design of Saviors_, and I feel the need to respond on his level. He raises a lot of interesting topics for discussion but he also makes one decision that infuriates me: He thinks he knows what the right answer is, as if this were a math examination. He does not know the right answer and I don’t know the right answer. We both have a point of view, his coming from inside the system and mine from outside it. Ironically, it is the editor of Magicthegathering.com, my old friend Scott Johns, who taught me that. I had the nasty habit of constantly saying that I was 100% sure of things, that I knew things, that other people were flat out wrong. That has to be reserved for when you actually are positive that you’re right. It is infuriating to debate or do research with people who say things like this all the time without proper justification.

In my opinion, Brian has written an article with a lot of good arguments and explanations in it but he also deals in absolutes where none exist. One of the perks of writing for StarCityGames.com is that I get to write articles like this one on occasion. If I’m in this for fun, I need to be able to cash in one of my chips every now and then. This felt like the right time. If you haven’t read his article, you’ll want to follow along here. But first, something of actual strategic importance.

Actual Strategic Importance: Making Top 8

That’s a good goal, is it not? The trick is to realize that until the drawing rounds this goal is not quite identical to the goal of winning matches and that this is identical with having the best match win percentage in matches you play. What you want is variance over expected value, because you need to exceed expectations to make almost any top eight. Let’s take yesterday’s suggestion of an eight round Vintage tournament as an example. Making Top 8 at such a tournament should essentially be your only goal until you get there, so you want a deck that is capable under the right conditions of posting the necessary record. Of course, all decks can post any record, but you want to maximize your chances. I’ll deal with this in depth another time, but the basic point is that a deck that could be great is better than a deck that can’t be great even if the deck that could be great might not even be any good. However, trying to win twelve of your first eighteen games or some other such “trick” should be avoided if only because it is mathematically easy to see it is far easier to get in having lost at some point than it is to go on a 6-0 run.

Only one player in 64 can win the first six, and that’s less than half of the slots that are usually available even if there are no draws. All of the other suggestions made by Stephen Menendian are to some extent valid, although some are stated a bit absolutely. The most important thing to know is that you have to play to at least make Top 8, and after that to win the tournament. If a deck is incapable of winning the later round matches against good players with good decks who know what you’re up to, then do not play it. Taking mathematical risks with game one by not having answers to certain cards is an expensive strategy because in the most important matches your opponents are most likely to know your weakness. Be very careful with this.

Now back to the fun stuff (Tinsman).

Question 1 – We need a white common creature. Which one do we keep?

For this one, he’s right. It’s not a choice and you have to keep the card he kept. There are three cards here and only one common. Battle Trumpeter is both not a common and in the wrong block while Squee’s Ugly Cousin is also at least uncommon. However, I think that Squee’s Ugly Cousin (hereafter SUC, and yes I’m aware) deserves a defense. No, it is not a common, but why was it a common in the first place? I could ask the same question about Battle Trumpeter, which should never have been a common in the first place, but I don’t think that it was worth saving. SUC however has an interesting mechanic in it: You can get it back, but you are effectively shut out of the game for a turn in exchange. That’s a great tradeoff and it is wonderful for the theme. Not only do you get a card back into your hand, but you’re not even allowed to make it smaller this turn! That’s great stuff. Instead of moving it to uncommon, it was killed because it wasn’t a common? What a shame.

A card can be designed to be a common, it can be designed to be a rare, but as has often happened before cards often need to move. That doesn’t mean that they all get to see print, because there are far too many cards in the set at this stage in design, but don’t kill stuff for the wrong reasons. Do it, as Kid Rock would say, for all the right reasons.

Question 2 – We need a ‘hand size matters’ card. Which one do we keep?

This one is easy, because he’s right that you don’t want this particular mechanic to go both ways. I don’t think that question is as clear cut as they made it out to be, but they’re right. The other two cards are not interesting for this set. I do want to note that the casting cost of 1G makes for quite an interesting card where 2G does not. You can blame development on that one I suppose, but I found it interesting that design came up with the same instinctual number that I did: It’s too potentially powerful for one mana, but the previous example of Quirion Dryad should show that there’s nothing too dangerous about this card at two mana.

Question 3 – We need a blue rare. Which one do we keep?

Equal and Opposite is quite a powerful card, combining well with anything that taps things down. If they do it at no cost, it becomes a beast. Relic Barrier locks down all artifacts, a creature tapper stops an army and a card that taps a land can end the game. God help them if you have Opposition. All of that is secondary here, because he’s right about it not fitting in. Neither does the first card, but I find it insane that he didn’t address the obvious issue with the card: It exists only to allow you to cast it with an empty library. You could win an entire grand melee this way! All you need is a way to empty your library, then cast this spell and they draw a card before you do. The card otherwise does nada, zippo, zilch, not a thing. That’s not an issue for development, because it doesn’t matter what power level you put this card at. That is what this card will do. I would also question whether Twins Convention is such a good idea in a legend set, but luckily the card was killed before I had to think too hard about that.

Question 4 – We need a black uncommon creature. Which one do we keep?

Card B is good design in some ways, because you need to have a hand to make it big, but bad design because you want to have only one to reduce the chance they’ll guess right and this is the hands-full set. Rather than throw it out, how about going back to the drawing board with something like this:

Throw ya hands up! Throw ya hands up!

The flavor is that he grows an extra arm for every card, which opens the door for some great Rosewater puns. How is that for a neat little card? Let development handle how much this card has to cost, but I want to be aggressive because it is very hard to play this card twice in the same match and get away with it, or to win a tournament this way. The problem with that is that in Limited this card is a monster even at rare, which will limit how much I can push. When changed in this way, I think it’s a great bizarre take on the hands-full strategy. How full do you want your hand to be? What is your opponent going to name? The big issue is that in Limited this could become a gigantic creature that is unlikely to fizzle, so you may be prevented from pushing it to become a Constructed card.

That’s not to say that I have anything against Skull Collector, which I believe to be a fine card and reviewed accordingly.

Question 5 – Which one do we keep?

On reflection Mr. Burn is indeed pretty darn terrible as one of the nightmare cards that are broken in Limited, unplayable in Constructed and hopefully never printed again. Fair enough. Garden of Good and Evil is bad for the theme, so it goes too. The question is the last card, which I have to say I find unlikely to be “too good” at B even if it is a rather neat trick to use it on Dragons. Saying that it combines too well with Soulshift is to misunderstand constructed and this is not going to ruin limited any time soon. Remember that Soulshift of any size can’t be better than Raise Dead and that the Hana Kami engine already exists and is the best way to abuse Soulshift if you want to go that route. Again that’s a development question but I find no reason to stick to one side of the coin. In general, Soulshift is a good idea for limited play but is essentially a harmless ability. There are too many things that need to go right for it to have an impact and any one of them going wrong ruins it. Even if everything goes right, you save no mana and look at no new cards.

Question 6 – We need a keyworded card. Which one do we keep?

This one’s cheating, because possess is not one of the base mechanics of Saviors and neither is Ninjitsu. One was from the last set and the other may or may not eventually get used. When he says this is a judgment call, I disagree. Ninjitsu is a second-set theme and therefore has no place in the third set. Possess is the Licid mechanic with modifications, and we all know how well that one went the first time.

Question 7 – Which one do we keep?

I have to say that on this one I flat out disagree. The idea that the cards tell a story is fine. I don’t think it should drive a set, but for now let’s say that it does. Was this card so vital to the story that it had to be printed but not in a playable state? Aside from Goblin Recruiter, which I didn’t mention in my initial review because I didn’t see it, there is no way to get enough out of this card to be interesting. Blinding Eternity either kills your opponent or does nothing, so I’m not a fan of that one. The question is Super Mario Brothers, and the answer that “it doesn’t fit into the story” seems silly to me. Who writes the story, You Make the Storyline? Work that guy in there, knock down his casting cost and give him a name like Supermaro until legal comes in and tells you that you need to pick something else. If you want to clash great armies, let’s clash some armies! Charge Across the Araba could be that fight, for example. There are any number of cards that feel far more “kill foozle in the big battle” than this one. It feels like a potluck Goblin token generator, not a ground swell of popular support and calling the tokens something else is not going to change that. I think SMB is a little expensive in its original version, but I like the mechanics behind him. Big creatures are better with trample, and being able to return your lands has wonderful synergy as well.

Question 8 – We need a ‘hand size matters’ card. Which one do we keep?

You are the design team, not the development team. Who are you to say that your cards will compare unfavorably with past ones? That’s not completely fair because sometimes you can say that it would be impossible to properly compensate you for a restriction or charge a reasonable price for an added ability but that is not the case here. I love the tension on Temporal Inept, and due to that tension this card can be pushed to make it competitive with Temporal Adept if you want to. Even if you don’t, the effect is so strong in a format where tons of decks need lots of lands that if it is even somewhat playable it will be interesting. At two mana this card could end up being outright broken! I also love the names of both rejects and Temporal Inept could see print without a name change.

Wrath of Alexandria has the same issues involved. If I was playing in a block format, I would kill for this card! You can cast it on turn 4 drawing first by playing it before your land drop or by using turn 3 to draw an extra. It is no Wrath of God, but was Final Judgment a failure? It most certainly was not and anyone who thinks it is a competitive variant for Wrath is kidding themselves. Wrath of God can be thought of like Counterspell. It is an upper limit to its power, not a minimum. I think a survey would back me up that this is one of the stronger Wrath variants. I would have given Wrath of Alexandria three stars. A better argument against this card is Final Judgment already being in the previous set and blocks having a one Wrath per block limit. Another argument is that it is ironically enough too strong rather than too weak if you cost it at 1WW while it is rather silly to cost it at 2WW.

Then there’s the card that Brian kept, Inner Fire. In my opinion, this is far harder to use well than Wrath of Alexandria and in this case you’re being compared to Seething Song. If the concern was making the mechanic look bad, then I think this choice was incorrect.

Error.  Divide by Zero!

Question 9 – We need a “bad rare”. Which one do we keep?

One with Nothing may well be the only card I’ve ever given a 0-star rating to. It was that bad. It reminded me of the Yu-Gi-Oh card that shows a little paper airplane and has ATK of 10 that exists just to make sure that everyone gets the message that we’re here, 90% of our cards are unplayable, get used to it. There is no zero star rating in my system, but I felt it was justified anyway. I don’t intend to use it again unless I feel I have no choice. At the same time, Power Siphon is less awful than Brian seems to think if you make it a may effect. It can then be as good as you want it to be from that point on. Tempt them if you wish. I agree however that it is not a card worth printing. Way too much thought went into One with Nothing and whether it had “applications”, because it doesn’t. You can’t apply this card because that involves putting it into your deck, but I’d much rather get a good laugh out of a beyond useless card than be given a useless card that only has an ordinary level of uselessness. If you’re going to print a bad card, I say go all out. A final note however is that this card was not rare for a while, as indicated by the notes. It seems odd that a bad rare card, who exists for that purpose, would have started life at uncommon.

Kamigawa: What Went Wrong?

This all leads up to the big question. What happened to this block? Is it inevitable that after a train wreck like Mirrodin (in terms of balance) that the game inevitably needs a cooling down period, a kind of global reset button that will return the costs on cards to a reasonable level? An argument can be made that yes, it actually does need that. We need to catch our breath, assured that there won’t be another mistake. The only way to do that is to play it safe: As Randy has said, when the game is at its best, mistakes will be made. A block like Kamigawa only makes mistakes relative to its other cards. We might have to deal with Umezawa’s Jitte for a while, but in a more powerful set it won’t be a problem. In general I think that the design philosophy of this block made some errors that I hope will be corrected or not repeated. I think this block failed to do two things, which happen to be the third and fourth laws of Cyberpunk. In case you never knew, which I can’t exactly blame you for given our marketing campaigns, here they are:

1. Style over substance

2. Attitude is everything.

3. Always take it to the edge.

4. Break the rules.

You can’t “push” flavor. I mean, you can, and it’s great when you do, but aside from being cool it doesn’t accomplish anything. All you can do is make your world cool, and while I don’t think of this world as particularly off-putting I also know that the circles I pass in don’t consider it anything special. To the extent that it feels Japanese, a lot of the cards have weird names. Spirits don’t feel special, they just feel like the next graveyard mechanic. If you want me to feel like I’m in a different world, cool art is a good first step but the key is to make the cards play so differently that I can’t help but notice. Splice feels correctly alien and the snakes were good at this, but the rest all felt far too normal. The White deck felt like a White deck. The Red deck felt like a (not good enough) Red deck. The Black deck felt like a Black deck. The legend decks felt like good stuff decks of old. I am a fan of the legends but they seem exactly like all the other legends of the past. They’re spirits, but nothing ever happens because of that. To Soulshift you need to be willing to play off curve and there aren’t good rewards for it.

Bonus: Top Ten Things I Learned At the Marvel PC (and by the way, many thanks to Gary Wise, Steve Sadin, Brian David-Marshall and Justin Gary)

1) Marvel (yes I know technically it’s Vs. but that’s an ugly name to keep typing) players are terrible.

If you’re reading this and play it, think of this like Chris Rock says women think of rap music: I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about the other players. The level of Magic play at this point is quite high, perhaps higher than people realize. Magic Online has helped a lot, but so has keeping the game around for this long. We’ve all had a long time to learn about Magic. There’s no way I could have built Block Constructed decks on my time budget and made them anywhere near as good as they were if I hadn’t had years of practice. My set reviews are based on eleven years of Magic expansions and my experiences with them.

2) Magic skills and math skills transfer over to Marvel skills.

I hadn’t played since I was testing the first set for Upper Deck, and it took me only a handful of games to get up to speed on my deck and several key matchups. By the second game against any deck, I felt like I knew what I needed to know. Only against two other Magic Pros, Osyp and Gary Wise, did I feel like I had a skill deficit. Three games later I would have been even with them. Mike Flores played badly. Any questions?

3) Marvel has huge stalling problems.

This comes from the game being played best of one and going to life totals. In most games it is clear which player wants to run out the clock, and several times a day a player has to make the decision whether to stall. If they do a good enough job, then they can steal a win. Without the possibility of a draw, there is no downside to running the clock out. I remember how Magic used to feel when I was worried about cheaters around every corner and things were even worse than I suspected. They’ll grow out of it, but it will take time.

4) Marvel is fun when you have no idea what you’re doing.

I had a blast because every turn I’d learn something new. There was no pressure because I didn’t expect to win.

5) If you think Pro Tours are long, try playing twelve rounds in a day.

It isn’t pretty.

6) Try only needing to go 7-5.

That’s kind of nice. Of course I went 3-6. One game per round is pretty random, not I deserved to win this one. I most certainly did not.

7) There were more professional competitors who wanted to play Curve Sentinels than there were copies of the deck, and there were no extra copies of anything because the same cards go in every deck, so no matter what you played you didn’t have anything else to loan out. Players have yet to realize that they have no choice but to shell out.

8) Even if you have never seen most of the cards or played the game in over a year, if a card in the deck they loan you looks terrible then it probably is.

9) Jeff Donais was last seen with a statue of The Thing in Amsterdam’s red light district.

10) Marvel’s three rules of its tour are: Be Cool, Be Professional, Don’t Be a Dick.

Those are great rules. Follow them, especially rule three. From now on, as I noted in my journal, this is what I mean when I say that someone *ahem* “committed a rule three violation.”

Additional Last Minute Bonus Question:

Question: Is Trinisphere Interactive?

Answer: Not if it’s done right. Allow me to explain. Trinisphere can be used in one of two ways. Way number one is to use it to force your opponent to play his cards at a reasonable pace and stop casting six spells a turn. There’s nothing wrong with that or forcing an Affinity deck to pay three mana for everything it plays. The problem is that the Trinisphere lock is the least interactive thing in the game. If I have you under Trinisphere on turn 1 and back that up with Smokestack or Crucible of Worlds then your opponent didn’t get a chance to play this game at all. He might as well have not shown up to this match except to check his initial hand for Force of Will. That is not any fun and it makes people take their cards and go home. I think that Oscar is right that the definitions of interactivity are (to be generous) confused at the moment and perhaps some day I’ll go into more detail on that, but for now let’s take all of that and use it to allow me to translate Aaron’s reasoning (which I agree with) into English from the tongue of Wizards, who are subtle and quick to anger:

Trinisphere was restricted because it prevented people from playing Magic, which is no fun and makes them take their decks and go home.

Here is when cards are restricted or banned:

A card will be restricted or banned when it either is making people take their cards and go home or will be doing so if something is not done about it.

It is that simple. Magic needs players, and if you’re taking away enough players, you will be dealt with. That is the right reason to get rid of a card. I would rather lose a card than lose my opponent. Remember, it’s a brain, a deck and a friend. I pity those who think it goes in that order.