What do most of the best mechanics ever have in common?
Now hold that thought.
Why am I asking? Before I go further, keep this in mind. Every good question creates more questions. Think about it. If I ask what drove Christopher Columbus to sail; if I ask what your goals in life are; if I ask what you think the key elements of the U/W vs. Mono-Red matchup are, each question will inevitably beget more questions. There’s a point in each child’s life where the child, no younger than four but no older than ten, realizes one day that he or she can just say “why” to practically anything.
We’re curious beings, and this curiosity inspires us to look further. This article may not give you all of the answers, but it’ll certainly provoke many of the questions.
The question in this instance looks relatively harmless. But, like all other good questions, it’s layered with the finesse of a renaissance painting: simple from a distance, but incredibly intricate as you begin to pull it apart. The question in
is the eighth question of the Great Designer Search Two Essay:
“Of all the mechanics currently in Extended, which one is the best designed?”
If you’ve been playing along with the search, perhaps you already have some thoughts on the matter. If you haven’t, take a moment to let the question resonate with you.
Ready to trek onward?
It’s remarkable how much you can learn by thinking about card design. Every time I think about how sets are constructed by Wizards of the Coast, I can find something applicable to deck design sitting right in the mix; a design principle transposed onto a canvas of competitive theory.
Let me get to the point.
Several of the best mechanics are ones that aim to fix some kind of screw or flood. Sure, there are some outliers. Tribal, for example, is a brilliant mechanic that does neither. But look at the mechanics they have successfully brought back over and over that still somehow manage to
leave players clamoring for their return. Cycling. Scry. Kicker. Then look at mechanics which also fall into that category and which I’m sure will be back someday, like level up and landfall. Do you see the pattern?
Sure, they each have their own set of independent triumphs. Landfall rewards players for doing something they want to do. Scry gives you glimpses into the future and control over your draws. Kicker gives you flexibility. But overall, they fall into a much larger category.
Cards like this are incredibly good for the game. When you’re trying to attract new players, you only have a couple of games to make them want to keep playing. Overcomplexity is a huge problem that has become much better in the past few years, but the absolute worst thing that can happen in Magic that makes a brand new player not want to continue is if they get mana screwed (or, albeit less bad, flooded) three games in a row and feel like they have no control over it. While mana screw and flood
important for the game by large, they’re also dangerous. Not being able to actually play the game you’re supposed to be, y’know,
is not fun at all.
These kinds of abilities help people play the game. Just look back at any block, and you’ll find some kind of mechanic and/or cycle that helps players regulate their draws.
So why does this matter to
? Perhaps this makes for some interesting design monologue, but how does it relate to play?
Let me put it this way. How many Spellbombs have you played with lately?
As I look through Sealed pools and draft sideboards, I see a number of Spellbombs sitting lonely, their love for their owner unrequited.
In fact, I just had this interaction the other day:
Me: Hey Panic Spellbomb, what’s the problem?
Panic Spellbomb: Oh, I dunno… it’s just that my owner was red, and he took me… and now he doesn’t even want to play with me. I just don’t get it. He told me I… I… was just a bad cycling card. *sniff*
Me: No! That jerk!
Me: There’s no such thing as a bad cycling card!
Panic Spellbomb: I know. But it doesn’t matter now. Look… before I get proxied on later tonight, there’s something I have to ask of you. Can you make sure my brothers get played?
Me: I’ll spread the word.
Panic Spellbomb: Thanks!
Me: You know, for a red artifact that makes creatures unable to block, you’re a pretty swell card.
Panic Spellbomb: I’m an artifact with a red activated ability, Gavin, not a red card. Where do you think we are, Esper?
Now before you open the forums and begin to tell me how I should leave the satire to Robert Frowney, Jr., there was a point to that guest appearance. Namely, to spread the good word of the Spellbombs.
All five Spellbombs are good.
There. I said it. Panic Spellbomb was just the one I happened to run into, but the other Spellbombs are similarly very playable. Even Nihil Spellbomb and Flight Spellbomb are fine. Should you always be playing them? Maybe not. But I think they’re a lot more playable than people are giving them credit for.
Why? Well, it’s not just due to their “primary” effect. It’s because of how they help you not get screwed while playing.
First of all, they cycle. Cycling is one of the best mechanics of all time for a reason. It’s both skill testing and helps make sure you get to play Magic. As mentioned above, there’s really no such thing as an unplayable cycling card. (Well, presuming the cost to do so is reasonable – sorry Resounding Scream.)
In Alara block, there were some much maligned cycling cards. Savage Hunger and Spell Snip were probably the two worst, and then there were some less played ones like Angelsong right behind. There was always a trend I thought was interesting with these cards. The average players wouldn’t play with them. The PTQ grinders seldom played with them. But if you paid careful attention to side drafts full of Pros, you might notice something peculiar: many of those cards would be in maindecks!
Why? Because they felt that they had a good chance of winning given that their decks gave them an adequate mix of lands and spells. In the case of mana screw, they happily cycled the card away to dig lands. If they had enough lands already and needed spells, well, you’d be surprised how many third turn Obelisks of Jund fell to a lowly Spell Snip that season.
But the Spellbombs are better than that. Not only do they cycle and help regulate your draws to avoid being mana screwed, but they
help you with another issue: artifact screw.
For many decks in Scars Limited, metalcraft is essential. Sure, there are some outliers – infect, I’m looking at you – but even then there are uses for artifacts, be it sacrificing, powering up Golem Foundry, and so on. No, maybe Nihil Spellbomb isn’t the best of the best. But in addition to cycling when you’re light on lands, it also serves as that all-important third artifact to turn on your Carapace Forger if you’re on the aggressive.
Let’s look back at Lorwyn block. There was a similar kind of feeling when playing that block because you could get tribe-screwed. Drew all of
your Faeries when you needed a Goblin to turn on your Squeaking Pie Sneak? Tough luck, bro! That is, unless some of those Faeries could
also be Goblins.
The tradeoff with Changelings wasn’t that much different from being something like a weak Spellbomb. You get an ability that synergizes with the rest of your creatures in exchange for playing a weaker card than normal. Look at Fire-Belly Changeling, for example. He’s by no means impressive. At the start of Lorwyn drafting, it was going fairly late – and I was always happy to lap a couple up. I was more than willing to play a weaker card in exchange for being able to turn on my better cards – which is very similar to what Spellbombs are doing.
Spellbombs, cycling, and changeling are just a handful of recent examples. (And don’t even get me
on neglecting to play your mana Myr.) In every format, cards are printed to help reduce your propensity to get poor draws, and it’s often just a matter of choosing to play with them. Sure, that Savage Hunger may not look as flashy as, say, that second Cavern Thoctar – but which is going to help fix your draws?
But what happens if you don’t get any of those cards? Well, first off, maybe you weren’t taking them high enough in the first place! I take cards with filtering effects higher than most people because I always want to have access to some. However, if things go awry, and that Flight Spellbomb your deck
needed didn’t lap, don’t fret. There are solutions.
Interestingly enough, the solution comes in the form of a common counterargument. Some say that instead of playing a weaker card that cycles, you could just be playing another land in that slot. I think it depends on the deck to some extent, but often a card like Preordain is going to end up being better than the eighteenth land because it provides a form of utility late as well as early. However – and this is where both worlds collide – I feel it’s often correct to play an extra land anyway.
Earlier this year, Steve Sadin talked briefly in his
Limited Information column
about how he has started to always play eighteen lands in Limited. This is also something I’ve done for a while. While I don’t do it every single draft, by and large, I find playing eighteen lands is great for a number of reasons. As Steve notes, “The cost of stalling out on mana tends to be extremely high.”
While playing that extra land won’t give you the versatility of something with cycling, or the digging of something like scry, or even the ability to be in a better position if mana flood strikes like kicker or level up, it still helps you not be land light – which is a good start, at least.
Despite all of the complaining we like to do about how we draw, every block provides ways to assist our draw situation. It requires sacrificing power, and, especially in Constructed, it can feel dangerous to do so. But consistency is king of Magic. As we move into Scars of Mirrodin Limited season, keep all of this in mind. While everyone else is cutting down to sixteen lands, remember than seventeen lands is still an okay place to be. Remember to draft cards that are versatile and help regulate your draws.
And, of course, remember to play your on-color Spellbombs.
Finally, as I close out my article for this week, I’d like to thank everybody who voted in my topical blend poll last week! It was a resounding success, and I’m pretty excited by the two topics that won. I’ve thought a lot about whether I should just come out and tell you right now, or if I should keep you guys in the dark and ravenous to know what the winners were.
Instead, I’ve decided to entwine.
I’ll tell you what topic won the Magic half. The winning topic was, appropriately enough, the question of “What Will Eventually Kill Magic?” with over 35% of the vote. The non-Magic half… well, that’s for you to find out next week.
If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear about it. Please post it in the forums, send it to me via e-mail at gavintriesagain at gmail dot com,
or send me a message on
at GavinVerhey. Additionally, if you ended up playing
the Darkvine deck
I talked about last week at the 2010’s, I’d love to know how you did!
In any case, join me next week when I tell you how Magic is going to die. Until then, have fun discovering new ways to fix your draws!
Rabon on Magic Online, GavinVerhey on Twitter, Lesurgo everywhere else